The young mountain chain of Himalaya is known for its unique and rich biodiversity. It has distinct landscapes ranging from pristine Shivaliks to alpine meadows and to dry arid cold deserts of trans-Himalaya. The Alpine zone in Uttarakhand state forms about 24.11% of the total geographical area. Alpine meadows in the state are locally known as Bugyals. They range between the altitude of 3,300- 4,000 metres, remaining snow covered in winters and lush green in the springs. They have rich diversity of flora and fauna and great aesthetic and are culturally and socially significant to the people of the hill state. Ecologically, they absorb large quantities of water coming from the glaciers thus acting as a buffer to reduce chances of natural disasters in low lying areas.
Local tribes have had an intimate association with the meadows being economically dependent since time immemorial. These biodiversity rich ecosystems are not only treasure of life saving medicinal herbs like spikenard muskroot or Jatamansi and caterpillar fungus Yartsa Gunbu but also home to various endangered wildlife flora and fauna viz., snow leopard and Himalayan blue sheep. Auli, Chopta, Ali Bedni, Pushtar, Rupin pass, Gidara, Pakuwa and Dayara bugyal are the attractive tourist destinations. Considering that the major rivers in the Himalayan region originate in these alpine meadows, their conservation is of utmost importance.
Presently, these ecological treasures are facing several threats like land degradation, soil erosion, overgrazing and climate change. They have witnessed an erosion of up to 2.5 kms in past few years. Their degradation has not only led to decline in biodiversity of the region but the ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and soil erosion are being badly hit. Cumulative impacts of intensive tourism and anthropogenic activities have changed the topography of this pristine land. Overgrazing by livestock has disturbed the animal food chain, while over-harvesting of medicinal and aromatic plants has critically disrupted the regeneration cycle.
Decrease in plant species has also decreased population of pollinators like bees and butterflies. Accelerated soil erosion and decreasing vegetation cover and water retention capacity of these areas has increased the risk of flash floods, which can cause immense damage to life and property downstream. The advent of nature-based, environmentally responsible tourism has though offered new employment opportunities for the local communities but has also led to degradation of the habitats due to accelerating waste production especially the non-biodegradable one and illegal, unsustainable constructions.
Waste disposal is another issue that the glorious landscape is facing. Discarded plastics can be seen scattered all over the area. Increased human presence in these Bugyals has also led to aggravated unlawful activities like poaching of animals and smuggling of endangered plants. Prolonged digging of the fragile alpine slopes for extraction of high-value medicinal plants is another cause of degradation. In fact, the damage caused to the eco-system is considered to be the key reason for global warming and melting of glaciers and thus increased natural disasters in the state over the decade. Climate change in the recent years has also led to the loss of valuable germplasm that could have been used for the food security.
Despite several restoration efforts in high altitude forests and treeline zone, these alpine meadows have not been able to replenish considering the intricate and fragile nature of the habitat. The grim situation has led the state forest department to explore various innovative solutions like eco-engineering. Any reclamation effort unless linked with innovative livelihood generation and sustainable livestock grazing measure may not yield a long term results. Given the complexities of the location, topography and weather all the conservation measures have to be collaborative between the administration and the local communities to ensure sustainable management of these delicate ecosystems. Also, sensitization of the masses regarding the importance of Bugyals would be very important in the process.
Alpine meadows play a very vital role in the Himalayan ecosystem and thus the gradual degradation of these high altitudinal mountain areas and their proper management is a matter of great concern. The positive example of Dayara bugyal restoration by the state authorities is undoubtedly a ray of hope. Yet, the rapidly degrading ecosystems, endemic to various species stand in the need of attention from both policy makers and scientists. The benefits of restoring these bugyals are not just their role in maintaining biodiversity and ecological cycle but also their ability to fix large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and thereby climate change mitigation. Any loss to the landscape will have domino effect over the entire human race.
(Author is a Research Scholar at Forest Research Institute, Dehradun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)