Hidden valley of heritage Kanchanjangha
Dr Krishna K Shrestha
Located in the northeastern corner of Nepal, adjoining Sikkim in the east and the Tibetan plateau of China in the north, Taplejung district is well known for its natural beauty and its intense natural and cultural heritage. In the lap of the snowcapped Mt Kanchanjangha, the world’s third tallest peak at 8,586 m, the beauty of Taplejung is even enhanced by its intact forests of conifers, junipers, and evergreen, semi-deciduous to deciduous broad-leaved vegetation of rhododendrons, maples and birch. Inhabited by mosaic ethnic groups, largely the Limbus, Bhotia (Sherpa), Rai, Tamang and Gurung, the place is an epitome of harmony, with the groups conserving their cultural beliefs and tradition as well as the natural ecosystem
while living together. Armed with lessons learnt from the Annapurna Conservation Area, the protected areas and buffer zones of other parts of the country, Kanchanjangha Conservation Area exhibits an exemplary model of people’s participation in sustainable utilisation of forest products, with successful stories of conserving the biological and cultural heritage of the pristine area. Transboundary cooperation is a key milestone in achieving the goal of conserving the biological diversity bordering the three countries, Tibet Autonomous region of China to the north, India (Sikkim) in the east and Nepal in the west and south.
Vegetation and Flora
Three major valleys — Tamur-Walangchung Gola, Ghunsa-Kambachen and Simbua Khola-Yalung are characterised by diverse ecological habitats such as verdant valleys, river gullies, marshes, steep slopes with crevices, and dry alpine grasslands, resulting into varied forest types and floristic elements. The area is phyto-geographically significant owing to the presence of many Sino-Himalayan and Sino-Japanese elements. It is estimated that 2,500 speces of flowering plants may occur here. One will be overwhelmed to see several unique ecosystems, virgin conifer forests and mixed broad-leaved forests, and enchanting species of flowering plants. The intact and pure forests of Abies spectabilis (silver fir), Pinus wallichiana (blue pine), Juniperus indica (juniper), Rhododendron, Tsuga dumosa (hemlock), Betula utilis (birch) and bamboo are examples of primary forests in good patches distributed throughout the area. Just below the timberline (3,200-3,900 m), the forest hosts the only extensive pure stand of Larix griffithiana (East Himalayan larch) in Nepal. Above the timberline (4,000 m), alpine scrub or dwarf bushes of rhododendrons (Rhododendron anthopogon, R. lepidotum, R. setosum), Juniperus squamata, Potentilla, Lonicera and Berberis sp. grow lavishly in patches. Further above, meadows comprising alpine grasses and sedge such as Agrostis myriantha, Carex sp., Festuca rubra, Juncus effusus, Poa annua, P. himalayana and Trisetum spicatum can be found.
The high hills and mountains of KCA are prime habitat for endangered species like the snow leopard (Uncia uncia), red panda (Ailurus fulgens), Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), grey wolf (Canis lupis), and common leopard (Panthera pardus). A brief survey of KCA revealed 77 speces of birds including golden eagle, bearded vulture, blood pheasant, snow pigeon, crossbill, brown dipper, etc. Moreover, the KCA has been identified as vital summer breeding habitat for several eastern Himalayan bird speces.
Ethnobotany and People’s Livelihood
Diverse ethnic groups such as Bhotia (often called Sherpa and Lama) reside in the higher valleys of Kanchanjangha, whereas the mid-hills are inhabited by the Limbu, Rai and Gurung. The people’s livelihood is directly influenced by the high demand of tree species like Gobre Salla (Abies spectabilis), Thengre Salla (Larix griffithiana), Dhupi (Juniperus indica), and Utis (Alnus nepalensis) for timber as the house construction materials. Similarly, massive exploitation of trees and shrubs of Gurans (Rhododendron arboretum), Chimal (Rhododendron campanulatum), Bhojpatra (Betula utilis), and Angeri (Lyonia ovalifolia), as the only source of firewood, are major threats to depletion of biodiversity resources and natural habitat destruction. The KanchanjanghaConservation Area is also noteworthy for the occurrence of diverse Non-Timber Forest Products, particularly medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs). The population and natural regeneration of commercially threatened MAPs like Kutki (Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora), Jatamasi (Nardostachys grandiflora), Paanch Aunle (Dactylorhiza hatagirea), Bikhma (Aconitum bisma), Khokkim (Bergenia purpurascens), and Padamchal (Rheum australe) are drastically decreasing. Similarly, due to lack of knowledge on sustainable harvesting and bioprospecting, the popular NTFPs like Argeli (Edgeworthia gardneri), Lokta or Seto Baruwa (Daphne bholua), Malingo (Arundinaria maling), Allo (Girardinia diversifolia), and Chiraito (Swertia chirayita) have not received proper attention for large-scale domestication and marketing.
The Road Ahead
Even as Nepal celebrates the 25th anniversary of the ascent of the peak today, we must join forces and mobilise active participation of local communities, CBOs, government and non-government organisations, with technical assistance from the experts, in order to protect the dear heritage of the mountain and its frontiers and try and build them as a noble model of community-based development and nature conservation.