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The Himalayas

The Himalayan hotspot mountain range covers an area of 750,000 sq km and includes some of the world's tallest mountains and deepest gorges. Seven Asian countries share the rugged splendour of these magnificent glacial landscapes. The location of these mountain ranges also translates into the Himalayas serving as effective defenses against natural calamities as well as reservoirs and replenishers of water for many major rivers. Spread out as a 3,000 km long crescent, the eastern Himalayas circle parts of West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in India, extending further to occupy parts of Nepal, Bhutan, southeast Tibet (China) and northern Myanmar (Burma). The Eastern Himalayas overlap with the Indo-Burma hot spot. In contrast, the Western Himalayas are restricted to the Kumaon-Garhwal region, northwest Kashmir and northern Pakistan. The Kali Gandaki River which runs between the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna mountains forms the point of separation between the eastern and western divisions of this giant mountain range. Altitude in the Himalayas ranges from less than 500 m to the mountain peaks of Mount Sagarmatha (Mt Everest) which towers at 8,848 m. Vegetation in this biodiversity hotspot includes alluvial grasslands, subtropical broadleaf forests, temperate broadleaf forests, alpine meadows, mixed conifer and conifer forests.

The hotspot has 10,000 plant, 300 mammal, 977 bird, 176 reptile, 105 amphibian and 269 freshwater fish species. Plant endemicity in the region is high and nearly 3,160 species belonging to 71 genera and five plant families are endemic to the Himalayas. The five endemic plant families are Tetracentraceae, Hamamelidaceae, Circaesteraceae, Butomaceae and Stachyuraceae. Interestingly, among the flowering plants, orchid density is very high with nearly 750 species of orchids identified so far.

The alluvial grasslands of the Himalayas have the highest densities of tigers (Panthera tigris) in the world and are the last remaining habitat for the wild water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and swamp deer (Cervus duvaucelii). Besides, the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers flowing at the foothills of the Himalayas are home to a globally significant population of freshwater Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica). Though 300 species of mammals have been seen in this hotspot, only a dozen are endemic to the region. Endemic species found here include the golden langur (Trachypithecus geei), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), pygmy hog (Sus salvanius) and the Namadapha flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus biswasi). At higher altitudes, species seen include snow leopard (Uncia uncia), Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), takin (Budorcas taxicolor) and argali (Ovis ammon). Other mammals seen here are those species common to the plains like langurs (Semnopithecus spp.), Asiatic wild dogs (Cuon alpinus), sloth bears (Melursus ursinus), gaurs (Bos gaurus), barking deer or muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) and sambar (Cervus unicolor).

Bird Life International has identified four Endemic Bird Areas in the Himalayas. However, in contrast to floral endemicity only 20 of the 980 species of birds are endemic. Endemic species of birds seen here include the Himalayan quail (Ophrysia superciliosa), cheer pheasant (Catreus wallichii), western tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) and chestnut-breasted partridge (Arborophila mandellii). Other species include the rusty-throated wren babbler (Spelaeornis badeigularis), white-throated tit (Aegithalos niveogularis) and orange bullfinch (Pyrrhula aurantiaca). Flagship species seen in this hot spot are the white-winged duck (Cairina scutulata), the Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis) and the endemic white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis).

Reptile endemicity is very high with nearly a third (50 species) of the 175 reptiles found here endemic to the region. Endemic genera include Oligodon, Cyrtodactylus, Japalura and the only member of one genera, the lizard species, Mictopholis austeniana. Amphibian endemicity too is high here, with 40 endemic species of the 105 identified including a rare endemic caecilian from Sikkim named Ichthyophis sikkimensis. Among the fish species, just 30 of the 270 species identified so far are endemic. They include the family Cyprinidae with 93 species and 11 endemics, river loaches (Balitoridae) with 47 species and 14 endemics and sisorid catfishes (Sisoridae) with 34 species and four endemics. Six endemic species have been identified in the genus Schizothorax. Other endemic genera of fish include, snowtrout belonging to the genus Ptychobarbus and the Ladakh snowtrout (Gymnocypris biswasi).

Deforestation on a massive scale with conversion of forests and grasslands into agricultural land has occurred in Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling, and Assam, Jumla, Kashmir, Lahoul and Ladakh. Besides this, overgrazing by domestic cattle and yak especially at low altitudes, over-exploitation of medicinal plants, logging, fuelwood collection and non-timber forest product extraction have led to almost complete destruction of several regions of this ecosystem. Poaching of red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) and snow leopards for their fur, and tigers and rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) for their body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine are other serious threats to the wildlife of this hotspot. Political insurgencies, tourism, mining, building of roads and big dams, and pollution caused by pesticides and fertilisers have severely affected this fragile hotspot. Only 15% of the land area of this region i.e. 112,578 sq km is protected to some extent.

Attempts to conserve the forests and the biodiversity of the region have led to the identification of nearly 175 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) with significant populations of globally threatened or endemic species. By grouping these KBA clusters as one unit and focusing on it as a whole, it is believed that conservation initiatives may be more successful. Besides this, transboundary conservation may be another dynamic step forward in accelerating conservation efforts in the region. Examples of such efforts includes, the inter-governmental effort to set up a tri-national peace park with the Kanchanjunga Conservation Area in Nepal, the Kanchendzoga National Park in Sikkim, India, and the Qomolungma Nature Reserve in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Significant effort has been made by the Government of India to conserve some areas of this hotspot. For example, places like Corbett National Park, Manas National Park, Kaziranga National Park, Chitwan National Park, Sagarmatha National Park, Nanda Devi National Park and Valley of Flowers have all received better protection in the recent past. Conservation efforts in the region have been mainly government led initiatives with support from international agencies like the Global Environmental Facility, United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the European Union, the Danish International Development Agency, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the MacArthur Foundation.

[The information has been sourced from the Conservation International website on biodiversity hotspots ( Accessed in February 2008.]

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