Exploration and Discovery in the Last Shangri-La on Earth- Eastern Himalayas (Eastern Nepal, Bhutan & North East India)
The Himalaya – the abode of Gods, the land of snow, and the last Shangri La on Earth – is full of life. Designated as a global biodiversity hotspot, the region supports an extraordinarily high level of unique biodiversity. Being at the crossroads of historic and prehistoric trade routes and cultural diffusion, the Himalaya harbours hundreds of different ethnic communities and their associated languages and cultures, and its landscapes are sacred to several of the world’s major religions After the two poles, the Himalaya holds the highest amount of ice in its glaciers. Eight of Asia’s largest rivers originate in the Himalaya, sustaining 1.3 billion people in their basins. Perhaps no place on Earth is more important to humanity than the Himalaya.
The ecosystems of the Himalayas are under extreme pressure from climate and regional extrinsic and intrinsic factors, cumulatively leading to widespread land-cover and land-use changes. Temperature rise and erratic rainfall from climate change in the high Himalaya has caused glaciers to dramatically recede, increasing the threat of catastrophic flooding, landslides, droughts and disaster events downstream. Biodiversity is also threatened by expanding populations, development pressures, and poor governance and policies.
Despite the extraordinary environmental, cultural, and socio-economic importance of the Himalayan landscapes, and despite the particular susceptibility of high elevation montane regions to climate change, the biodiversity of the region remains unexplored, and the impact of climate change on biodiversity and people remains poorly understood.
Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, with Eastern Nepal to the West and Bhutan in between represent the core of the Eastern Himalaya. Together the region may contain 80% of the Eastern Himalaya’s unique biodiversity. More than 200 new species of flora and fauna were discovered from this region from 2009 to 2014. This recent discovery not only confirms the rich biodiversity but also show a huge potential for discovery of new species if this area is further explored.
The Ashok Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Balipara Foundation (BF) in India, the National Biodiversity Centre in Bhutan, and the Koshi Tappu Kanchenjunga Biodiversity Education and Livelihood Terra-Studio (KTK-BELT) in Nepal propose to create a consortium to undertake inventories of selected group of plants and of biodiversity in the states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam (ATREE and BF), Bhutan (NBC), and eastern Nepal (KTK-BELT) in partnership with a range of institutions in the three countries. Another objective is to examine the impact of climate change on biodiversity.
The India, Bhutan, and Eastern Nepal initiatives will be separate, coordinated respectively by ATREE and Balipara Foundation, NBC, and KTK-BELT, but will use common protocols. ATREE and NBC have worked together in the past, notably in setting up similar biodiversity portals—the India Biodiversity Portal and the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal. ATREE and KTK-BELT have engaged in grassroots-level exchanges to share knowledge about mitigation of human-wildlife conflict and biodiversity loss.
The specific goals of the initiative will be as follows:
1. Catalogue biodiversity, including flowering plants, insects, fungi, lichens and microorganisms, agrobiodiversity and develop a comprehensive database using tools and approaches of biodiversity informatics. Curated data will be made available on the portals--the India Biodiversity Portal, the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal, and the Nepal Biodiversity Portal-- open-access platforms that encourage participation from the professionals as well as the citizen scientists. Databases will also include Indigenous Local Knowledge on biodiversity.
2. Identify patterns of species richness, rare and endangered species, and monitor current pressures on biodiversity, including the impact of climate change, trade in wild species, and patterns of resource use; integrate these data into databases outlined above for the use of researchers, students and policy makers.
3. Develop strategic plans for sustainable use, monitoring and management of India, Bhutan, and Nepal’s unique biodiversity.
4. Enhance human and technical resources of partners, the state of Sikkim, and other North Eastern states, the country of Bhutan, and the eastern region of Nepal, in research, policy analyses, and education related to biodiversity science.
5. Identify, based on findings, key opportunities for action, such as creating new biodiversity corridors, community conservation areas, and wilderness reserves and establish new centres for science education institutions for youth to study taxonomy, climate adaptation, and other regionally relevant topics.
International Collaboration and Local Partnerships
India, Bhutan, and Nepal have lagged behind in biodiversity science, and particularly in taxonomy. There are several reasons for this. First are the inadequate investments in the science of taxonomy. Second, regulations for biodiversity research have severely curtailed the exchange and loan of specimens, isolating taxonomists in these three countries and from others throughout the world. Uniform and dependable names for organisms, which do not respect international boundaries, depend on strong international collaboration. Third, experts in particular groups from other countries have not been encouraged to collect and collaborate with resident scientists. Fourth, neither India, Bhutan, nor Nepal and for that matter no other single country, has experts in all groups (and that is why international collaboration is so critical for taxonomy to flourish). Thus we propose to foster international collaboration in our efforts to assess and monitor biodiversity. The collaboration will enrich biodiversity science as well as help adequately train the next generation of biodiversity science leaders in both places. The international linkages should be durable, interacting with robust regional activities, and should result in a strong taxonomic presence in all three countries.
The consortium of ATREE, BF, NEC and KT-BELT, and other members as these are recruited will constitute the steering committee of the project. This body will develop the overall vision for the program and raise resources. Each member organization will name a coordinator who will be a part of the Program Committee that will meet twice a year to design and implement the project.
Databases and Website
A unique feature of the project will be the maintenance of a web site and databases emanating from the project and integrated with India Biodiversity Portal and the Bhutan Biodiversity Portal. A separate Nepal Biodiversity Portal will be created and linked to other two portals. Apart from compiling and organizing the data and information collected by professionals, the portals will engage citizens and amateurs in biodiversity informatics.
The consortium will raise Rs 6 crores over the next six months as a SEED grant for two years from diverse resources, and over 50 crores over the 5 year period from the Department of Science and Technology, Department of Biotechnology and others government and private organizations.
Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE)
Established in 1996, ATREE integrates interdisciplinary approaches to meet contemporary environmental challenges. In a relatively short period, ATREE (www.atree.org) has emerged as a premier research institution in South Asia in the area of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. In a recent survey of non-governmental organizations and research think tanks by the University of Pennsylvania, ATREE was ranked #19 globally among environment think tanks and #1 in (http://csis.org/files/publication/120119_2011_Global_Go_To_Think_Tanks_R...).
Balipara Foundation (BF)
BF is a not for profit NGO mandated to compel both global and community-level involvement in Naturenomics™ inspired development initiatives. The Foundation aims to support both human and ecologically-conscious economic development through extensive learning initiatives and the unlocking of Nature Capital in food, water, energy, and biodiversity. BTFF has a vision to live, love and learn from nature and work towards creating interdependence between nature and economics. Supporting both human and sustainable-economic – Naturenomics™ – development through extensive learning initiatives and the unlocking of Nature Capital in food, water, energy, and biodiversity.
National Biodiversity Centre (NBC)
National Biodiversity Centre (www.nbc.gov.bt) in Serbithang, Thimpu, Bhutan is the primary centre dealing with biodiversity under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. The Centre currently has 38 staff. The centre maintains a national herbarium, collections of insects and a few other groups of organisms, a seed bank for Bhutan’s crop genetic resources, a botanical garden, gene bank for animal genetic resources, a basic molecular lab and a bioprospecting (plant extract preparation) lab. It also houses the official biodiversity information repository of the country in the form of an open-access portal (www. Biodiversity.bt).
KTK-BELT (www.belt-project.org)’s mission is to to catalyse new models of biodiversity conservation, environmental learning, and sustainable design in eastern Nepal through close partnerships with government schools, communities, and policy makers. Its strategy is to create place-based ‘Learning Grounds’ which conserve local species and fragile habitats. By working directly with rural youth and farmers, KTK-BELT is seeking to create a continuous belt from Koshi Tappu (67 m.), Nepal’s first RAMSAR site, to Kanchenjunga (8,586 m.), the 3rd tallest peak in the world, which will serve as a ‘Vertical University’ to teach and conserve the 6,700 plant species and other biodiversity found in eastern Nepal. To date, five Learning Grounds chapters have been established and more than 200 acres of conservation land containing 660 species has been safeguarded in the eastern Himalayas. In 2015, KTK-BELT was honoured with the UIAA Mountain Protection Award in Seoul, and recognized by the Aspen Institute, Asia Society, and Buckminster Fuller Institute.