Alternative Developmental Paths in the Western Himalayas

By Tsewang NamgailonMar. 25, 2024in Economics and Technologies

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

Pangong Lake in Changthang

Imagine building a bulwark of massive proportion to keep millions of people safe from marauding armies. It cost Chinese emperors trillions of dollars and thousands of human lives to build the Great Wall to secure its northern borders. India, however, benefitted from a natural rampart to keep herself safe from invading enemies for millennia. Towering peaks, treacherous terrain, and harsh weather conditions made it incredibly challenging for foreign invaders to penetrate and conquer the Indian sub-continent. Additionally, gigantic mountains have served as a natural barrier against the icy cold winds blowing from the Arctic, moderating temperatures and climate patterns across the sub-continent. Yes, I am talking about the mighty Himalayas.

The Himalayas came into existence as a result of the collision between two continental plates: India and Eurasia, c. 50 million years ago. The edge of the Indian plate buckled under the Eurasian plate and the bed of the intervening ocean (Tethys sea) was raised, giving rise to the Himalayan range and the Tibetan plateau. The vast expanse of land that came into being started influencing the Asian climate. Suffice it to say that had it not been for the rise of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, we would not have the South Asian Monsoon. Such is the significance of the Himalayas, which we conveniently forget. 

Several species such as elephants and rhinoceroses coming out of Africa made the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau their home. These animals evolved morphological and physiological adaptations such as thick fur, broad horns and tusks to shovel off snow to uncover vegetation. Over eons the giant elephants evolved into woolly mammoths. Once adapted to the cold temperature of this high landmass, the animals could not expand their ranges further, as the surrounding landscapes were low and hot. They however expanded to Eurasia, once the ice age set in there, and then to North America, crossing the Bering Strait.

The woolly mammoth went extinct in the Himalayas c. 10,000 years ago. The reasons for their extinction remain unclear. Several hypotheses exist with the most plausible one suggesting over-hunting by humans, who had started settling in the Himalayas around the same time. Pre-historic humans in the region lived in large groups, which allowed for cooperation in tasks such as hunting and defence against predators. Hunting large animals such as woolly mammoth was advantageous for these gregarious people, as these animals could sustain them for extended periods. 

Unfortunately, these and many other Pleistocene animals went extinct, as alluded to earlier, but we have several animals from the same epoch. For instance, we still have Pleistocene animals such as the wild yak and the Tibetan argali and several other that endured, perhaps by virtue of their size. However, today these animals are facing myriad existential threats due to the technological development of the Anthropocene, and if we do not slow down our destructive developmental activities, we will push them to the brink of extinction, depriving future generations of the opportunity to enjoy the sight of these elegant animals. 

A snow leopard in the mountains of Sham

Contemporary wild animals in the Himalayas are threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation, thoughtless development, rapid urbanization, mass tourism and agricultural expansion. Illegal wildlife trade further exacerbates the problem, with poaching and smuggling driving populations of iconic species such as tigers, rhinoceroses, and snow leopards to perilously low numbers. We have already lost extraordinary species such as the Himalayan Quail, which was endemic to the Western Himalayas. Several high-profile species such as the red panda and the Himalayan musk deer, are inching towards extinction.

At a broader scale, climate change is the umbrella threat in the Himalayan region. A recent climate risk mapping exercise, using physical and socio-economic indicators, conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras has found Western Himalayas to be at a greater risk than the eastern part. The impact of global warming on wild animals is becoming apparent in several parts of the Western Himalayas. For instance, several populations of migratory birds have stopped migrating from Ladakh to their winter grounds on the plains of the Indian sub-continent. The Himalayan brown bear, along with other species that hibernate during winter, has increasingly been reducing the duration of its hibernation period, leading to heightened human-bear conflicts in spring and autumn. 

Drang Drung Glacier in Zanskar Mountains

Furthermore, human-induced climate change has been wreaking havoc and jeopardizing the well-being of people across the Himalayas with increasing frequency. Each state in the Western Himalayas has been ravaged by catastrophic natural calamities, including the devastating floods that struck Ladakh in 2010, Uttarakhand in 2013, Kashmir in 2014 and Himachal Pradesh in 2023, to name the major ones. These disasters wrought unprecedented destruction, leaving behind a trail of unimaginable loss in terms of human lives and property. Impacts of other disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and subsidence of land have equally been massive.

Black-necked Crane in Changthang

Since this article is more about our wild brethren, let’s return to the issues besetting wild animals. The threat of free-ranging dogs, intensifying by the year, is pervasive across the Himalayas. As human settlements expand into natural habitats, the population of feral dogs increases, leading to heightened interactions with wildlife. These dogs proliferate near encampments of the military, tourists and labourers, where they feed on leftover food. Once the camps, particularly those for tourists and labourers, are shut down in autumn, these dogs disperse into the surrounding mountains and villages. They prey on any wild animal they encounter. According to a report of the WWF-India, the population of Black-necked Crane, the state of bird of the Union Territory of Ladakh, has allegedly been halved due to depredation of eggs and chicks by these dogs over a span of two decades. Moreover, they pose serious threats to people, including instances of attacking, biting, and even killing, not to mention transmission of diseases such as toxocariasis and leptospirosis.

At a deeper level, clearing forests for agriculture or construction results in the loss of natural vegetation that helps bind the soil together. This makes the hillsides more prone to landslides, especially during periods of heavy rainfall or seismic activity. Moreover, large-scale infrastructure projects, such as roads and dams, often require extensive excavation and alteration of the landscape, further exacerbating the risk of landslides. The consequences of such unsustainable development practices are not only ecological but also have profound socio-economic impacts. Communities lose homes, agricultural land, and vital infrastructure as a result.

Recognizing these, several organizations working on different issues in the Western Himalayan landscape have joined hands under the banner of Vikalp Sangam, a national platform for learning and sharing of alternative paths that are in sync with local ecology and culture. The activities include promoting rural tourism through homestays, advocating for traditional crafts using locally sourced materials, ensuring gender parity and empowerment, promoting ecological literacy and environmental stewardship, reviving and revitalizing local culture and traditions, fostering social cohesion, and strengthening spiritual practices. At the core of all these is the motivation to ensure overall happiness of communities, which cannot be ensured solely through economic well-being.

We hope that these initiatives, and the ideas behind them, coalesce, transcend borders, and create not just a ripple effect but rather a wave across the country and the world. 

Contact the author.

Story Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply