Conserving mountains for people and nature
Half the world’s biodiversity and half the quarter of world’s population reside along the mountains. And a half of the world’s population quenches its thirst from melt water originating from the planet’s mountain glaciers.
The water fed by these perennial mountain river systems have also become sources of energy through hydropower, irrigation for agriculture, and large water related economies downstream.
Mountains in Nepal are characterised as sub-tropical to alpine climatic patterns ranging from soft hilltop to steeper terrain.
Nepal has within its vertical terrain, the same range of biodiversity that stretches thousands of horizontal kilometers from the tropics to the Arctic on the planet’s surface.
Lush forests with important flora and fauna intermingle with pockets of mountain communities spread across the Himalaya. This ice cap on ‘The Third Pole’ provides a life support system for the region and the planet.
Mountains are incredibly rich in biodiversity, and the Himalaya is home for wildlife including red panda and snow leopard as well as a wide range of resident and migratory bird species. The mountains also offer habitats for various endemic species of flora with important medicinal and aromatic plants, and non-timber forest products including rhododendron, Yarshagumba, Paanchaule, Sarpagandha -- specifically growing in the rangelands that lie immediately past the snowline.
The diversity and uniqueness in the extremities provided by the geographical terrain are limitless. Mixed in with this natural variety of plant and animal life, are culturally rich and ethnically diverse human settlements.
This biodiversity is now at risk with increasing threats, both natural and human-induced. Infrastructure development, invasive species proliferation, and deforestation of high-value trees that often takes an age to mature along with overuse of limited natural resources have taken their toll on the Himalaya.
The climate crisis has come on top of these existing problems. Glacial lake outbursts threaten downstream valleys, affect freshwater availability, increase in landslides, flash floods and forest fires, and changes in timings of flowering and fruiting of important crop species.
Raising awareness to adapt to these changes, while global action is taken to mitigate carbon buildup in the atmosphere has never been more important. That is why on 11 December International Mountain Day this year, the theme is to focus on protecting mountain biodiversity.
Protecting Nepal’s mountain ecosystems and their wealth of flora and fauna require immediate attention. Various groups are working with the Nepal government to ensure that large swathes of these multiple-use mountain landscapes are secured and preserved under the protected areas system such as conservation areas (Api Nampa, Annapurna, Manaslu, Gaurishankar and Kanchenjunga), national parks (Khaptad, Rara, Shey-Phoksundo, Langtang, Shivapuri-Nagarjun, Sagarmatha, and Makalu Barun) and a hunting reserve (Dhorpatan).
In addition, large areas of mountain ecosystems outside the protected areas are under direct management of division forest offices and community forest groups. Nepal’s community forest management system, in particular, has been lauded globally as a unique model of grassroots-based conservation.
Special focus is now provided to species conservation in mountains where external influences have impacted wildlife, their habitats, and communities. Species such as red panda in mid-mountain and snow leopards in high mountains are flagship animals, and indicator species of the local ecosystems.
Their persistence in nature has been used as an emblem for conservation success. In the past, the Nepal government and the conservation fraternity have taken initiatives such as nationwide surveys, awareness and sensitisation programs, strengthening anti-poaching efforts, and forests and corridor restoration measures, while expanding livelihood initiatives in the mountains.
Habitat restoration programs such as afforestation and networking of community managed forests have also enhanced the species conservation and maintenance of critical ecosystems in the mountains.
Recent paper on red panda distribution in Nepal published in PLOSONE highlights the first baseline on red panda occupancy in the country. Approximately 40% of the potential habitat (nearly 22,453 km2) is currently being occupied by the red panda. Bamboo forests are highlighted as an important factor for red panda distribution in the mountain ecosystem. This is symbolic of the successes so far, and also point to the need to provide similar protection to the habitat of other species.
Conservation of holistic mountain conservation guided by National Biodiversity Strategies, National Forests Strategies, landscape strategies, management plans, and species action plan including the community forest operation plan can weave together various strands of conservation work for the benefit of mountain, wildlife, and local communities.
Ananta Ram Bhandari heads the Mountain and Forest Programs at WWF Nepal.
Peak ambition, Lisa Honan and Nimsdai Purja