Coupled ecosystems of the Indian mountains

India is blessed with the tallest and the most gallant mountains of the world. These mountains, apart from being aesthetically beautiful, also host a wide variety of flora and fauna that sustain the livelihood of the people in the region.

The mighty Himalayas, the Aravalli range, the Satpura range, the Vindhya range and the world famous Western Ghats — all have their own unique biodiversity co-existing with the indigenous human populations, forming ‘coupled human and natural ecosystems’. Humans have been living in harmony with the native flora and fauna until the boom in demand for mountain plant and animal products in the recent years. This has hampered the peaceful co-existence and resulted in the destruction of the flora and fauna. There is also an upsurge in the livestock population to meet the increasing demands for wool and other ‘exotic’ products.

Conservation of the native biodiversity always faces constant conflicts with the local pastoralists of these mountains. Restriction of grazing lands, overgrazing, introduction of invasive species, deforestation and climate change are a few of the many problems, which are common to most of the mountain habitats in India.

Professor Sumanta Bagchi and his team at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru have extensively studied the concept of ‘Coupled human-and-natural ecosystems’, probing how humans and wildlife are both dependent on factors like food resources and soil fertility. The team’s work is focused on the region of the Trans-Himalayas, covering the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Himalayan Ibex (Capra sibirica hemalayanus) is an indigenous animal in this region and the availability of pastures for native grass-eating animals like the Ibex was restricted by domesticated animals like goat, sheep, etc. The team has developed an integrated scientific approach towards conservation of the Ibex that does not compromise human livelihoods. In close partnership with the government of Himachal Pradesh, these research findings were translated into applicable management plans.

Similar to the conflicts in the northern mountains, other hotspots like the Western Ghats have long faced the ill effects of being a biodiversity-rich region. Community forest management practices taken up by various organisations with the help of villagers have proved their efficacy through conservation of endemic species like the Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) and the lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus). These villagers mainly depend on Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) for their livelihood and have also shown interest in learning about new techniques to sustainably use NTFPs.

Another major factor often ignored in most conservation studies is the impact on soil. For example, the increased livestock in the Trans-Himalayas has lead to overgrazing in this region, which in turn has adversely affected the nutrient content of the soil. Grazing can substantially influence the stored green house gasses (GHGs) as soil carbon. A huge loss of soil carbon via overgrazing can lead to the release of these GHGs. 

Although the climatic conditions of the Western Ghats and the livelihoods of the locals here are entirely different from that of the Trans-Himalayas, it is apparent that both these places have similar issues of nature conservation along with the issue of protecting the livelihoods of the locals. While all these issues may not be of immediate importance to the people living elsewhere, the damage to the ecosystem is a universal problem. Sooner or later, its ripples will spread and we will all be caught up in the whirlpool.

The changing environment shows us the mirror to our own deeds and the footprints that we leave behind for the ones yet to come. The need of the hour is to mend our ways regarding how development is being carried out, have better policies in place, consume natural resources responsibly and be ecologically aware citizens.

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