Himalaya: Biodiversity Threats

The Himalaya: Biodiversity Threats

Ecology Magazine Articles

The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) covers an area of over 530,000 sq km—about 16 per cent of the total geographical area of the country. It has a total population of over 40 million and stretches over 2,500 km from Jammu & Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east (ENVIS, 2016).
Biodiversity is a comprehensive term for the extent of nature’s variety or variation within the natural system; both in number and frequency. Biodiversity encompasses a variety of ecosystems within which living creatures, including humans, form a community, and interact with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them. The biodiversity we see today is the result of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It is the web of life, which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully dependent.

The three broad categories of biodiversity:

  • Genetic diversity: A variety of genetic information contained in individual plants, animals and microorganisms occurring within populations. Simply put, it is the variation of genes within species and populations.
  • Species diversity: Encompasses myriad species or living organisms, measured in terms of species richness, and refers to the total count/number of species in a defined area.
  • Ecosystem diversity: Relates to diverse habitats, biotic communities and ecological processes in the ecosystem.

Similar to genetic or species diversity, some attributes of human culture represent ‘solutions’ to the problems of survival in a particular environment. Cultural diversity, which  helps people adapt to different conditions, could hence be considered  a part of biodiversity too.

Forestry and biodiversity
Nearly 65 per cent of the total geographical area of the IHR is legally designated as forest land (National Forest Policy, 1988). However, this does not necessarily mean that all this area is actually under forest cover. Nearly 43 per cent of the total geographical area of the Himalaya comprising Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh fall above 4000 m above sea level.
These parts either remain covered under perpetual snow or are alpine pastures that do not support tree growth due to harsh climatic conditions. Therefore, in fact, forests cover only about 42 per cent of the total geographical area of the Himalayan region. Of this, 50 per cent is under very good forest cover, and 21 per cent is under dense forest canopy (FSI, 2015).
Himalayan forests nurture staggering diversity of life forms richness across longitudinal and altitudinal gradients, and are therefore classified as one of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots. The idea of a biodiversity hotspot was first mooted by Norman Myers in 1988. Conservation International adopted Myers’ idea of hotspots as its institutional blueprint in 1989. To qualify as a hotspot, a region must meet two criteria: it must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants (> 0.5 per cent of the world’s total) as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70 per cent of its original habitat.
Commanding just 16 per cent of India’s geographical area, the Himalayan region is home to  81.4 per cent of the country’s stock of gymnosperms, 47 per cent of angiosperms, 59.5 per cent of lichens, 58.7 per cent pteridophytes, 43.9 per cent of bryophytes and 53.07 per cent of fungi (Thematic Report on Mountain Ecosystems, 2002). Of the 372 mammalian species recorded in the country so far, as many as 241 species are found in the Himalayas. Avian diversity includes more than 1,200 bird species. Nearly 50 per cent of India’s total flowering plants grow in the Himalayas, of which 30 per cent are endemic to the region. There are over 816 tree species, 675 wild edibles and over 1740 species of medicinal plants in the region. Of these, 3160 plants are endemic to the region. The foothills are the habitat for three major terrestrial species – namely the tiger, elephant and rhinoceros, while the high altitude habitats nurture some unique faunal species such as the snow leopard, red panda, hangul, chiru, musk deer,  and Himalayan tahr (ibid).

The value of biodiversity components
Besides  being a rich source of goods such as  food,  fibre, timber, and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as medicinal plants, Himalayan forests provide  a range of life supporting forest ecosystem services to the country  such as  climate moderation, regulation of hydrological cycles, carbon sequestration and scenic beauty worth billions of rupees per year.
For example, the  forest ecosystem  of the western Himalayas help maintain the agriculture soil fertility of  the Gangetic plains,  providing food to nearly 500 million people in India, besides supporting livestock husbandry. The forests are also a valuable source of carbon sequestration.
The height and steepness of the Himalayan mountain range confers considerable variation to its ecosystems Although the faunal diversity of the region is poor, the flora includes elements from tropical Indochina, temperate East Asia, the Palaearctic region and the Deccan Plateau. The low-lying areas along the Brahmaputra River, subject to floods during the monsoon, support mixed evergreen forests. These forests also contain several Deccan elements, indicative of the geological origins of the region.

Loss of biodiversity
Biodiversity loss and related changes in the environment are now faster than ever before in human history and there is no sign of this process slowing down. Nearly all of the Earth’s ecosystems have been dramatically distorted and altered due to unchecked human interference and large-scale conversion of forest land for agricultural and other use. Many animal and plant populations have declined in numbers and in geographical spread. Although species extinction is a natural part of the Earth’s history, human activities have accelerated the extinction rate by at least 100 times over.
A range of drivers, which could work both directly and indirectly, causes loss of biodiversity. Important direct drivers affecting biodiversity are habitat alteration, climate change, invasive species, overexploitation of bioresources and pollution.

himalayan biodiversity at various elevations

Principal threats
By definition, a threat refers to any process or event, natural or human induced that is likely to adversely affect the status or sustainable use of any component of biological diversity. Such natural or human induced factors tend to interact and amplify each other. Among these are,

Habitat alteration and destruction: The main factor directly driving biodiversity loss worldwide is habitat alteration and destruction. The destruction renders entire habitats functionally unable to support the species within.  This causes existing organisms to be displaced or destroyed. Natural habitats are often destroyed through human activity for harvesting natural resources for industrial production and urbanisation. Clearing forest areas for agriculture, changes in riverine habitat for the construction of hydroelectric projects on rivers are resulting in habitat destruction or fragmentation.

Overexploitation of biological resources: When a particular species is removed or harvested at a higher rate than can be sustained by its natural reproductive capacity overexploitation results. This can be through hunting, fishing, trade, or food gathering. Overexploitation remains a serious threat to many terrestrial and aquatic species. The grazing pressure on most high altitude grasslands in Uttarakhand from both migrant and local communities, as also from unsustainable collection of medicinal herbs pose a serious threat to biodiversity (Rawat, 1998).

Pollution of soil, water and atmosphere: The past five decades have seen inorganic and organic pollutants emerged as one of the most important factors causing biodiversity loss in terrestrial, aquatic- marine as well as freshwater ecosystems. Thermal pollution is another threat to biodiversity.

Species invasion: This can be intentional or accidental. Invasive plants are recognised to have severe ecological impacts in a wide range of ecosystems throughout the Himalayan region. They can alter ecosystem structure and function, trophic structure, resource availability and alter or deplete biodiversity of natural landscapes. Some invasive species found in the Himalayan region include Lantana camara, Mikania micrantha, Eupatorium adenophorum, Polygonum polystachyum, and  Parthenium hysterophorus.

Climatic changes: An increase in a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide causes global warming.  Recent changes in climate, particularly warmer winter temperatures have already had significant impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems. They have affected species distribution, population sizes, timing of reproduction and migration events, as well as the frequency of pest and disease outbreaks. Assessment by Indian scientists (DEFRA, 2005) show that over the Indian region, warming could be about 2.1 to 2.6oC in the 2050s and 3.3 to 3.8oC  in the 2080s. These could lead to the extinction of many species.

Population Growth: Increase in human population results in an insatiable demand for raw materials. This results in imbalances and consequently, loss in biodiversity. Human population needs to be controlled if we care to conserve biodiversity.

Biodiversity conservation
Biodiversity conservation is about saving life on Earth in all its forms and keeping natural ecosystems functional and healthy. This incorporates the preservation, maintenance, sustainable use (conservation), recovery and enhancement of the components of biological diversity. Conservation measures could be ex-situ or in-situ.

  • Ex-situ conservation: This refers to the conservation of components of biodiversity outside their natural habitats, such as within zoos, museums, gene banks, botanical gardens/arboretums, to protect endangered species and prevent their extinction. This is also known as captive conservation.  Several medicinal plants from among rare, endangered, threatened and vulnerable species have been brought under cultivation to the large extent such as Saussurea costus (Kut), Picrorhiza kurroa (Kutki). Seed banks, botanical, horticultural and recreational gardens are also important centres for ex-situ conservation.
  • In-situ conservation: It refers to the conservation of ecosystems and natural habitats. Approximately, 4.8 per cent of India’s total geographical area has been earmarked for extensive in-situ conservation of habitats and ecosystems. A protected area network of 96 national parks and 510 wildlife sanctuaries has been created for the purpose. The Himalayan region boasts of nearly 25 per cent of national parks in India. This has significantly helped in the restoration and conservation of the tiger, rhinoceros, and elephant population.

Community participation
In recent years, efforts to conserve biodiversity have gradually begun to shift away from law enforcement and restrictions, to participatory approaches emphasising the equitable and sustainable use of bioresources by local communities. This change in approach is important in the remote rural areas where biodiversity is concentrated, poverty pervasive, and development programmes, often limited. A new emphasis on finding ways to derive economic opportunities from bioresources is needed, as it is neither politically feasible nor ethically justifiable to deny the poor the use of natural resources without providing them a viable alternative. Many models of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development have evolved from species to the landscape management level.
Approaches to biodiversity management in biodiversity-rich spots apply policies aimed at the development and conservation of biological resources. These include,

  • participatory forest management, and
  • enterprise-based biodiversity management involving communities.

An example of participatory forest management is joint forest management practised in India. The participatory buffer zone management in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) is a good example of enterprise-based biodiversity management wherein wild edible and medicinal plant based value-added products and eco-tourism promotion by G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment & Sustainable Development (GBPNIHESD), Garhwal Unit is being put into practice.

Initiatives by India
Protecting and promoting biodiversity has always been an integral part of India’s culture and civilization. The thousands of sacred groves protected by tribal, Hindu and Muslim communities all over the country prove it.
Traditional Indian systems of agriculture and medicine depend on plant and animal biodiversity. India is one of the early signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Even prior to CBD, India had legal provisions framed to protect biodiversity. Among these are,

  • Enactment of Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 to regulate and control diversion of forest laws for non-forestry purposes;
  • National Wildlife Action Plan (2002) revised to outline policy imperatives and strategies for action points for biodiversity conservation;
  • Enactment of Biological Diversity Act, 2002. Constitution of National Biodiversity Authority to conserve vast biological diversity;
  • Constitution of National Medicinal Plant Board to effectively implement an integrated policy  for conservation, sustainable extraction, cultivation, utilisation processing and marketing of medicinal plants; and,
  • Subsequent to the approval of the National Environment Policy (NEP) by the Cabinet in 2006, a National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP) was approved in November 2008 to augment the natural resources base and its sustainable utilisation.

Protection of critical habitats and conservation of biodiversity cannot be achieved without improving the socio-economic conditions of people living in and around forested areas. Local communities  being the focal point of every conservation effort, attempts should be made for a balance between conservation, development and people’s needs. Involvement of local people in the formulation and implementation of conservation policies and management plan can help achieve biodiversity conservation goals. Promotion of awareness and education on conservation and sustainable utilisation of bioresources and strengthening networks/coordination with the help of central government departments, state governments, NGOs and local institutions is urgently needed.


Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. February, 2005. Himalaya. Available at: https://goo.gl/N8ktqX.

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Biological Importance.Available at: https://goo.gl/yDBhEl.

ENVIS Centre on Floral Diversity. Biodiversity Hotspots in India. Available at: https://goo.gl/7I8URy.

ENVIS Centre on Floral Diversity. June 30, 2016. Global Biodiversity Hotspots with Special Emphasis on Indian Hotspots. Available at: https://goo.gl/zUatJh.

Ministry of Environment and Forests. 2002. Thematic Report on Mountain Ecosystems.

Ramakrishnan, P. S. 1992. Shifting Agriculture and Sustainable Development: An Interdisciplinary Study from North-East India.Taylor and Francis, pp. 424.

Rawat, G. S. 1998. Temperate and alpine grasslands of the Himalaya: Ecology and conservation. Parks 8 (3):27–36.

Semwal, R.L. et. al. 2007, Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Forest Governance-A Scoping Study from Uttarakhand. pp.120

Singh, S.P. 2007, Himalayan Forests Ecosystem Services: Incorporating in National Accounting.

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