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.

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