Tuesday, August 26, 2014

CNHP Director’s Adventures in India - Part 4

by David Anderson, CNHP Director

On August 3rd, Dr. Ishwari Rai, Botanist at the Wildlife Institute of India, and I departed for a seven day trip to the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.  We were joined by Umed Singh, our field technician and also four porters from the village of Ransi, where we started our trek.  
Our expeditionary force on top of Dwara Pass (about 14,000 ft elev).
From left to right: Umed Singh, Dr. Ishwari Rai, B. Khoyal, David Anderson,
Rakesh Bhatt, Jitendra Panwar, and Dinesh Khoyal. 
One of our key goals for this trip was to document rare plant locations to help us delineate a preliminary boundary for an Important Plant Area (IPA).  An organization called PlantLife International has drafted guidelines for creating IPAs worldwide, and when following these guidelines IPAs are also recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).  There has already been some work in the Western Himalayas to identify IPAs for medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs), but the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary was not studied previously so we had the opportunity to define an area here that is particularly rich in biodiversity and home to some of India’s rarest and most threatened plants.  

The Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary area is recognized for the presence of high quality habitat for Musk Deer, but it has not been surveyed extensively.  Unlike the Valley of Flowers area, livestock grazing is allowed in the Sanctuary and the area is very much a working landscape.  This afforded us a chance to compare these two areas and document the impacts of human activities on high elevation ecosystems here.

A herd of goats and sheep above the treeline.
It was wonderful to learn so much about the alpine ecosystem dynamics of the Western Himalayas on this trip from Dr. Ishwari.  The climax community above treeline here is a diverse grassland dominated by Danthonia cachemyriana and Kobresia royleana.  This community currently occupies vast areas of the Western Himalayas.  Danthonia is a bunchgrass that forms tall tussocks, which may reach ages of 1000 years or more.  Near treeline, Danthonia is the dominant species, while at higher elevations it is replaced gradually by a predominance of Kobresia, which is a close relative of sedges.  These areas provide excellent forage for livestock, which are predominantly goats and sheep in this area.  These areas have no doubt been grazed for many hundreds of even thousands of years by both resident and nomadic herdsmen.  Historically, grazing was light in this area, but it appears that in recent years it has increased and is reaching unsustainable levels in some places.  

Once an area becomes overgrazed, most commonly in areas where shepherds camp, the highly palatable graminoids are replaced by a flora of unpalatable nitrophilous species.  Included among these are Polygonum polystachium, Rumex nepalensis, Polygonum chinense, Saussurea hypoleuca, and a few others.  Although the nitrophilous species are native, they thrive under disturbance regimes created by overgrazing, and as such their presence starts out as a symptom of mismanagement.  However, once they become established, these species alter the soil chemistry, precluding the recolonization of a site by graminoids and impeding succession back to a graminoid-dominated system.  So this conversion represents a nearly permanent loss of productive grazing lands, and also biodiversity, and seriously compromises the sustainability of grazing in these areas.  To add insult to injury, the areas without grass roots to hold the soil become highly susceptible to erosion and landslides in the heavy monsoon rains.  

While most of the area we visited remains in good condition, we noted many areas where the Danthonia tussocks have been completely lost, and many others where the conversion is underway, and resting from grazing is urgently needed to allow the grasses to recover. 

This area has been used by people for a very long time (the Hindu temple at Kedarnath was built around 900 AD!), and it will continue to be an important area for the livelihoods of many people.  In delineating this IPA, we hope that it can be used as a tool to improve management and lead to more sustainable grazing.

Danthonia cachemyriana- dominated grassland at approximately 13,000 feet
 in the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary- this site is in excellent condition.

Degraded Danthonia grassland with increasing dominance of
nitrophilous species.  The broad-leaved plant is the most common
 indicator of overgrazing here, Polygonum polystachium. 

Heavily degraded area that has lost all graminoid species, dominated almost entirely
by Polygonum polystachium. Note that Danthonia is still present on top of the large
rock at top right of the photo where the livestock can’t eat it!

One of the highlights of this trip was the discovery of a new site for Platanthera pachycaulon.  Dr. Ishwari recently rediscovered this species of orchid at a site west of here- it was first described in the 1800’s but hadn’t been seen in over 100 years.  This story is much like that of Gilia sedifolia in Colorado.  The site that Dr. Ishwari found on this trip (which was right next to our campsite!) is now a second location for this species.

Platanthera pachycaulon, discovered by Dr. Ishwari at our campsite!
This specimen will be deposited in the Herbarium of the Botanical Survey of India.  
And of course, another highlight was the spectacular view we got during a break in the Monsoon of the high peaks of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.  

Mountains at the head of Mandani Valley during a break in the Monsoon.
These mountains start about where ours end in Colorado!  Photo by Ishwari Datt Rai.

Friday, August 15, 2014

CNHP Director’s Adventures in India - Part 3

by David Anderson, CNHP Director

Are you familiar with the “Open Standards for Conservation”? You might have heard of them as Conservation Action Planning, or “CAP,” as referred to by The Nature Conservancy.

The Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) has worked over the past decade to combine principles and best practices in adaptive and results-based management to create the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. It is a simple, powerful, and effective approach for planning, implementing, and measuring success for conservation projects. It has been tested and deployed successfully by hundreds of teams working to conserve species, sites, ecosystems, landscapes, watersheds and seascapes across the globe. It is an adaptive management framework that uses a 10-step process to build a comprehensive conservation plan for a given area from the ground up. I really like how this method can be used to bring people with disparate values together to find a path forward that everyone can agree on. These methods guide groups through the process of developing a plan, but also incorporate monitoring to measure progress towards goals and modify activities if necessary to meet those goals. CNHP, with The Nature Conservancy and other partners, has used these methods for many years, as part of the Rare Plant Conservation Initiative and in the San Juan Basin.

On July 21 and 22, the Wildlife Institute of India hosted an Open Standards Seminar and Workshop, which was attended over 30 faculty and students.

Dr. Sathyakumar welcoming the participants to the
Open Standards Seminar and Workshop.

The story of this workshop actually starts three years ago when I, along with Michael Menefee, CNHP Environmental Review Coordinator, attended a training in Conservation Action Planning led by Terri Schulz with The Nature Conservancy. At that time I had just started working on becoming a Fulbright Specialist, and talking with Terri about this we realized that there was a huge opportunity to explore these methods with the WII. We discussed this with Dr. Vinod Mathur, Director of the WII, who agreed that this was of great potential value for conservation in India, so it was included in the WII’s proposal to Fulbright for this project.

Terri is part of the Conservation Coaches Network (CCNet), a group of 300 trained professionals represented by 82 organizations in 52 countries around the world who help support conservationists throughout the world to learn about and apply the Open Standards. It was through her connections that we began talking with Adam Barlow, Christina Greenwood Barlow, and Lucy Boddam-Whetham, who are Coaches with a UK-based non-profit called WildTeam. WildTeam has worked for many years in Bangladesh and is very interested in expanding their work into India, so coming to the WII to meet everyone and lead an Open Standards seminar and workshop was a wonderful opportunity for them. It also worked out for Terri to join us, so we had an amazing group of both workshop participants, representing India’s leading thinkers in wildlife management and conservation, and coaches.

First, WildTeam led a seminar to introduce the Open Standards methodology, using some great examples from their work to conserve tigers in the Sundarbans area of Bangladesh. Then for the workshop we focused on an area within the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve called the Khiron Valley, which contains many conservation targets and important wildlife habitat. While this area is part of the Biosphere Reserve, it is not managed as a protected area- it suffers now from overgrazing and faces many threats. We divided into four groups and each group worked on a particular target. My group’s target was high elevation grasslands and meadows. Within this target we identified several subtargets including the rare plants that you read about in my previous blog. Then we identified and ranked threats, and mapped behaviors that drive them.

Getting started with the seminar.

Adam Barlow from WildTeam teaching us about Open Standards.

Lucy Boddam-Whetham from WildTeam introducing the Open Standards Workshop.

Christina Greenwood Barlow with WildTeam (writing) and
Terri Schulz with TNC (at right) leading my group through the
Open Standards process for alpine grasslands and meadows.

This event was successful in several ways. In the seminar, many of the faculty and students were exposed to these methods and learned about how they can use them in their projects and careers. And in the workshop we created the foundation for an in-depth conservation plan for the Khiron Valley that WII Faculty, along with other partners, will continue to work on. We discussed the possibility of hosting future Open Standards trainings and workshops at the WII, and how the WII could become a lead institution in India for training and dissemination of these methods. Dr. Mathur would like to adopt these methods and would like an interested subset of the faculty be become part of CCNet. Here are a few of the comments from the participants:

"This method really helps to break down the questions" - Dr. Bilal Habib
"This helps us identify what we actually need to do" - Preeti Sharma
"Organization is an important part of planning" - Prangyar A. Lama
"I will use these methods for grant writing" - Dr. Gopi G.V. (who also expressed the desire to become a coach)
"These methods have great importance for the Himalayan region" - Dr. Ishwari Rai

These two days were phenomenally successful and rewarding in many ways. This was due to the skill of the coaches, the knowledge of the all the experts in the room, the generosity of the WII in hosting this and providing wonderful hospitality, and above all the spirit of exploration and enthusiasm of all of the participants.

If you are not familiar with the Open Standards methodology you can learn more about it here.

The participants at the end of the workshop, happy with a sense of accomplishment!