The Himalayas, meaning “abode of snow” in Sanskrit, stretch across India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and China, with the first three countries having sovereignty over most of the range. The Himalayas have profoundly shaped the ecology and cultures of South Asia. They also help to regulate our planet’s climate.
Three of the world’s major rivers—the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra—arise in the Himalayas. Their combined drainage basin is home to some 700 million people. Almost half of India’s population live within 310 miles of the Himalayan range along the Gangetic plains.
ECOLOGY OF THE HIMALAYAS
The climate ranges from tropical at the base of the mountains to permanent ice and snow at the highest elevations. The amount of yearly rainfall increases from west to east along the southern front of the range. The flora and fauna of the Himalaya vary with climate, rainfall, altitude, and soils. This diversity of ecological conditions combined with the very high snow line supports an incredible variety of distinct plant and animal communities, earning it a place among the earth’s biodiversity hotspots.
The Himalayas foster an amazing diversity of life. There are over 163 globally threatened species found in the Himalayas. 10,000 types of plants, 977 birds, Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinos, Asian elephants, red pandas, golden langurs, Asian brown bear, and snow leopards all call this diverse landscape home.
The flora, fauna, and habitats of the Himalayas are undergoing structural and compositional changes due to climate change. Increasing temperatures will shift various species to higher elevations as is already happening with apple orchards in the Kullu Valley. There are reports of early flowering and fruiting in some tree and wildflower species, thus changing the composition of pollinators in the region.
The biodiversity of the region is mirrored in the rich mosaics of cultures, traditions and people. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims all occupy this area. Many communities have a long history of living closely with nature and an ethic of conservation derived from their view of nature as sacred.
The region faces serious threats from poverty, increasing human populations, habitat loss, and climate change. As populations grows, traditional practices of small-scale agriculture and effective community management are interrupted as land is cleared to meet the need for food, shelter, and industries which support the modern lifestyle. Climate change is impacting communities and wildlife. Glaciers are melting, springs are drying up thus limiting the water supply. Changes in rainfall and snowpack impact farmer’s crops and threaten food security of the local people.
Promising conservation and sustainable development programs abound in the Himalayan region. Examples include the creation of vast National Parks to preserve biodiversity, Wildlife Highways to lessen habitat fragmentation, and habitat restoration to restore what has been damaged. Innovative social programs are helping to strengthen a culture of conservation. Ecodevelopment programs for women, education, and community-based conservation initiatives such as livestock insurance, support communities in garnering their livelihoods from a balanced use of resources.