Saving Kangchenjunga

The biodiversity treasures of eastern Nepal are at risk from new roads, outmigration and climate change

The imposing Kangchenjunga massif as seen from the North Base Camp region. All photos: ALTON C BYERS

The Kangchenjunga region is where modern tourism first started in Nepal.  

As early as the mid-1800s, the region below the world's third-highest mountain had started seeing foreign expeditions. 

The English botanist J D Hooker traveled throughout the Tamor, Ghunsa, and Yangma river valleys in 1849. ‘Pundit’ Sarad Chandra Das, one of the indigenous spies trained by the British Raj for clandestine mapping and intelligence work in Nepal and Tibet, visited the region in 1879, following the Chabuk Glacier north to cross into Tibet.  

In 1884 Rinzing Namgyal completed the first recorded circumambulation of the Kangchenjunga massif. In 1899 the British mountaineer Sir Douglas Freshfield replicated Rinzing’s journey with him, Italian photographer Victorio Sella, Sella’s brother, and other notable mountaineers of the time. 

But it was not until 1955 that Kangchenjunga was first climbed by George Band and Joe Brown. Since then, more than 350 climbers have made it to Kangchenjunga’s various summits.  

Trekking tourism began in earnest in 1984 when the region was first opened to foreign groups and has averaged only a few hundred tourists per year since 2010. Till last year, most trekkers said they decided to come here because it was the last mountain area in Nepal without a road. That is changing. 

Read also: Trekking in the time of climate change, Achyut Tiwari

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Steep switchbacks on a new road from Nepal over the Tiptola Pass up to Tibet.

The region is actively undergoing more environmental, socio-economic, and cultural changes during the past 10 years, more so than anytime previously in Nepal’s 250-year history as a unified nation. 

The alpine shrub juniper and dwarf rhododendron throughout the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) are in surprisingly good condition, in spite of the hundreds of years of harvesting by yak herders and villagers for fuel, incense, and to increase pasture area.  

This is largely reflective of low tourism, decreasing livestock numbers, and extremely wet environments found in the KCA.
Humid environments tend to be more forgiving of human and cattle disturbances while promoting the rapid re-establishment of protective ground cover such as herbs and grasses. 

Populations of yaks, dzopkio, and other livestock are rapidly decreasing, as they are throughout much of the Nepal Himalaya due partly to labour shortages because of the outmigration of young people, and also herds being sold for meat in Tibet as well as changing lifestyles.

Read also: Participating to save Kangchenjunga, Ghana S Gurung

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Four dzopkio carried the author's  camping equipment, food, and research gear with Mt Jannu soaring in the distance.
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Young people have been leaving the KCA for jobs in Kathmandu and overseas since the early 1990s, a process that intensified during the Maoist insurgency between 1996-2006. Most of the remaining inhabitants in villages such as Ghunsa are elderly, with the exception of a few younger lodge owners who can make their living from tourism.

Climate change and warming trends are accelerating the glacier melt, processes already noted by Hooker in 1849 and Freshfield in 1899. Since then, the problem has become more acute and potentially catastrophic. Glacial floods, rockfalls and ice-debris avalanches have increased the vulnerability of local populations. 

Villages need to start thinking about mitigating and preventing the impact of floods by building gabions along river channels, moving structures away from vulnerable areas and monitoring threatening glacial lakes and other dangerous features.

Himalayan fir (Abies spectabilis), an IUCN Red List species, is being overharvested, as are many other rare and medicinal alpine plants. This trend will be exacerbated by the construction of the new proposed roads and the easier accessibility to formerly remote regions which they provide.

Read also: Tracing past glacial floods in Kangchenjunga, Alton C Byers

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Dozens of glacial lakes like Nangama have formed over the past 25 years as the glaciers melt and retreat. 
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Elizabeth Byers stands next to Rheum nobile (padamchal, or lemonade plant) which used to be common in the KCA but are now rare due to overharvesting and increased access to new roads.

The most striking change in the KCA, and one with social and environmental impact, has been the construction of new roads throughout the Taplejung district during the past 10 years which are now beginning to encroach into the KCA. 

The perceived benefits of roads have typically included increased access and connectivity for rural populations, employment opportunities and health benefits. 

Hastily bulldozed roads are also now encroaching into national parks and protected areas, with little concern for old growth forests, wildlife, local economy, traditional cultures, and the future of adventure tourism. 

Many of these changes are happening throughout Nepal. New highways, transmission lines, irrigation canals and even new railways are crisscrossing national parks and protected areas. Poaching is reduced, but infrastructure is the new threat to Nepal’s conservation. 

Read also: Including local knowledge to study climate change, Kunda Dixit

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The spread of the road network (red lines) in the last 12 years has been rapid, threatening the regions rich biodiversity. Map: MOHAN CHAND

But it is still not too late for Kangchenjunga. The region differs from others because there is still time to assess the feasibility of new roads and their environmental and socio-economic impacts. 

KCA could choose to remain a ‘traditional' protected area only for foot and beast of burden travel, thus making it unique in Nepal’s rapidly diminishing roadless protected areas. 

Increased visitation would directly benefit local cottage industries like handicrafts, fresh vegetable production, milk and dairy products, pack animal rental, and others. 

A functioning natural history museum and interpretation centre in Ghunsa and elsewhere could educate visitors about the rich and unique flora and fauna of the region.  

Read also: Go East, Sudhir Limbu

Land above the trees

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The Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA), established in 1997, is spread across 2,035km² of protected area in easternmost Nepal. It was turned over to local communities in 2006 as Nepal’s first community-managed protected area.

It is home to the world’s third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga at 8,586m, once thought to be the highest in the world because of its massive summit ridge and visibility from Darjeeling.  

The region is also believed to conceal a beyul, or hidden valley of treasure and immortality containing sacred teachings that will be revealed to the devout in times of trouble. 

Elevations in the KCA range from subtropical forests below 1,000m, the fir/birch/rhododendron forests in the subalpine, dwarf vegetation of the alpine zone, to the 8,586m summit of Kangchenjunga, all within a horizontal distance of less than 30km. 

KCA is one of the last remaining refuges for the rare Red Panda, whose remnant populations live in remote conifer-bamboo forests. Himalayan Black Bear, Common Leopard, Red Dog, Palm Civet, and Yellow-throated Martin are more common, inhabiting both forest and farmland where they can often be a problem for local farmers and their livestock and crops. 

Large populations of Blue Sheep can be found in nearly every side valley encountered and are a good indicator of the presence of Snow Leopards. 

Alton C Byers, PhD is a senior research scientist at INSTAAR, University of Colorado at Boulder in the United States. In 2022, he and his botanist wife Elizabeth spent six months in the KCA documenting and quantifying contemporary threats to the KCA’s alpine zone under a Fulbright project. Byers has been involved in other initiatives that are still running in the Everest, Makalu-Barun and Peru’s Cordillera Blanca funded by the National Geographic.

Read also: Remembering Nepal’s conservation heroes, Ghana Gurung