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The Flora and Fauna of Himalayas

Posted by treks-trips-trails on April 17, 2013 at 10:30 AM

General information:

The Himalayas stretches over a distance of about 2500 km from the west to the east. It’s average width along the entire longitudinal extension ranges from 100 - 400 km. The vast area covered by the mountain range along with some fantastic altitude gradients result in the tremendous biodiversity of the Himalayan region. Vegetation and wildlife, both change according to the varying altitude and the resulting differences in climatic conditions.

Thousands of species of flora and fauna thrive in the region, each adapting to its climatic condition, predators and prey unique to each one's habitat.However, as in other regions, man's entry and exploitation of the region has meant that many species have become extinct or are threatened and on the verge of extinction. We present a brief look at the tremendous natural wealth of the Himalayas.

Flora:

Himalayan vegetation varies according to both altitude and climatic conditions.They range from the tropical deciduous forests in the foothills, to temperate forests in the middle altitudes. Higher up, coniferous, sub-alpine, and alpine forests spring up. These finally give way to alpine grasslands and high altitude meadows. They are followed by scrublands which lead up to the permanent snowline.

The vegetation also varies from the unexplored tropical rainforests of the Eastern Himalayas, to the dense subtropical and alpine forests of the Central and Western Himalayas to the sparse desert vegetation of the cold desert areas of the Trans Himalayas.

However,the floral wealth of the Himalayas have also been affected by man. Over the centuries, man has always been dependent on his forests for a number of his needs. But earlier, these needs were few, the forests were able to replenish the resources, and the delicate natural balance was maintained. But over the years, the human population increased dramatically, and with it the number of industries that depended on the  forests.Extraordinary demands were made on the forests. Forests were cut down for firewood and to feed the growing number of forest-based industries. They were also cleared to accommodate the growing population. As a result, many species of trees that were very common even 50 years ago are now rare or have completely disappeared from certain areas.

Tropical Forests

There are mainly two types of tropical forests that are found in the Himalayas- the tropical rainforests, and the tropical deciduous forests. The tropical rainforests are dense, evergreen, gloomy and similar to the forests of the Amazon basin and other equatorial areas. They occur mainly in the eastern Himalayas which receives very heavy rainfall.

Tropical deciduous forests are found in regions of slightly lower rainfall. They are common in the lower slopes of the Himalayas.These forests shed their leaves in certain seasons. Also the forests tend to be less dense than the rainforests. Forests of teak and sal are common in areas of deciduous vegetation.

Temperate Forests

Temperate forests are mainly found in the middle altitudes of the Himalayas. They are found both along the main Himalayas and on the transition zone between itself and the barren cold desert areas. Dry temperate forests are also found in the drier parts of the Himalayas and the barren Transhimalayan region. The forests are usually found in areas experiencing temperate climate. Their altitude varies from 1800m to 3000m depending on local conditions.

Mixed Temperate Coniferous forests, also known as the western mixed coniferous forests,  are  an attractive forest typical of the moister regions of the western Himalayas, having a  mixture of temperate zone conifers like the deodar, blue pine, fir and spruce. There may be broad-leaved species mixed with the conifers in small proportions particularly in moist shady depressions.

Individual trees attain a height of more than 40 m though the height attained by the trees of this forest type is relatively lesser than those found in the very moist zone of the western Himalaya. This is probably due to the harsh climatic conditions prevailing in the drier parts.

This forest type is found in the main Himalayas and the transition zone between itself and the cold desert regions, generallybetween an elevation of 1800 and  3000 m. It is well developed in the upper Ganga valley and Kali valley of Uttarakhand,India, and in the Satlej valley of Kinnaur.

As the name suggests, it grows in areas of typical temperate climate. Summersare mild and warm with the average maximum temperature rarely exceeding 32 C.There is a short autumn season after which winter sets in. The first snowfall of the season may occur as early as in mid- November. Snow accounts for aconsiderable part of the total annual precipitation. In winter the temperatureremains below the freezing point for fairly long period.

During the past few decades these have come under an enormous strain due  to large scale deforestation for fodder, fuel wood and construction activities.

In the wetter parts of the same region exist the temperate moist mixed deciduous forests or the broad-leaved species which thrive in the wetter climate. In the drier regions within these forests, conifers, and even patches of grasslands can be found. Individual trees may attain a height of about 20 m.These forests range from 1800m to 3000m in the relatively wetter regions. it usually develops in moist shady depressions and along streams and rivers. The forests are found all along the main Himalayas as well as in the transitionzone to the cold desert regions.

Even these forests have come in for severe degradation due to biotic pressure in the form of lopping for fuelwood, fodder, small timber and constructional timber.

Other temperate forests include forests of oak at an altitude of 2500m-3500m. They are dense forests with individual trees rising up to 20m and more in height. In drier patches, these forests are intermixed with deodar and blue pine. The oakforests are mainly found in regions experiencing climatic conditions from temperate to sub-arctic. Major chunk of annual precipitation is from snow, with hailstorms occurring in April and May. These forests have also undergone degradation due to felling of trees for fuel , fodder, and timber. Alongwith the oak forests lie the fir forests. They usually occur slightly higher -between altitudes of 2600m-3600m.

Other forests in the middle altitudes include the cypress forests between the altitude of 1800m and 2800m, in regions of temperate to sub-arctic climate.These occur in relatively drier conditions and hence are open forests.

 Forestsof blue pine are found between an elevation of about 2100m and 2600m in areas of temperate to sub-arctic conditions. They can be found in areas of relatively poor and shallow soil. In these regions grasses and other species thrive during the rainy seasons and die out later on. A thick layer of pine needles covers the forest floor under these forests. These forests can even grow on poorer soils like the highly sandy soils near rivers.  This forest is apioneering vegetation and can grow on very rocky soils, fresh landslides and even recently burnt areas.

Forests of chilgoza or neoza pine occur in the drier cold desert regions. Tree growth is sparse due to the harsh climatic conditions which may even result in stunted or malformed trees. These trees gain a height of upto 18m. The soil in the region is generally  fragile, poor in nutrients and very rocky at places.Chilgoza forests occur commonly in the Kinnaur Himalayas of India, extending from the banks of the Satluj river up to the middle elevations in the valley.

Dry temperate forests

As the name suggests, they are found in drier areas of the region having temperate to sub-arctic conditions. They occur between an elevation of 2000 and 2500m. These forests include both broad-leaved and coniferous species.Open patches of grasslands are found with these forests. The trees, however,are relatively short and do not grow to more than about 18 m. These forestsoccur in areas of poor shallow soils which otherwise get eroded quite fast. The regions usually receive little rainfall and a large amount of snowfallthroughout winter.

Dry forests of Deodar occur in dry tracts between 1800-3000m with trees becoming stunted at higher elevations. The soil quality is generally very poor and prone to erosion. At higher elevations, between 2700m and 4300m, juniper forests are found. These are open evergreen forests consisting of dwarfed and stunted individual trees. The climatic conditions here are even more severe - varying from sub-arctic to arctic. Summer temperatures usually do not exceed 28 C while winters are bitterly cold.

Sub-alpine forests

These forests are found near the snow line all over the Himalayas, and even in the cold desert regions. The trees tend to be stunted due to the extremely harsh conditions in the areas.

High fir forests dominate the altitudes between 2900 and 3500m, especially in the transition zone between the main Himalayas and the dry cold deserts. At higher elevations the trees become stunted. Some broadleaved species also accompany the conifers in the lower altitudes. Average temperatures in summers range from 20 to 22 degrees Celsius. Winter temperatures are usually well below the freezing point accompanied by lots of snow. Birch forests join the fir forests at an elevation of above 3000m.

Low rhododendron evergreen forests can also be found alongside the birch forests.The forests are open with the occasional grasslands in between. The winters areso severe in the region that vegetative growth virtually stops in the winters.

Alpine Scrubs

Alpine scrub grasslands take over from the dwarf sub-alpine forests. These grasslands start at an elevation of above 3000m grow up to the region just below the snowline. They are common in both the main Himalayan regions aswell as the barren cold deserts of the Transhimalaya. Low alpine grasslands are common with the vegetation not growing higher than 1.5m. Trees are stunted and occur sporadically between thickets of shrubs and grasslands. Climatic conditions vary from the sub-arctic to arctic, with snow covering the groundfor over 5 months a year. The growing season for the plants is thus stunted.Pastures are grazed by migratory cattle in summer.

In the inner dry valleys and parts of the trans Himalayas, dwarf rhododendrons grow along with patches of grasslands. This vegetation succeeds the sub-alpine forests and merges with the snowline at a higher elevation.

Just below the snowline is a growth of dry alpine scrub. Trees are absent. Shrubs along with patches of pasture. The scrub thrives in shady depressions and along streams formed by snow melt waters. Dwarfed junipers also occur sporadically.The soil is very poor in nutrients. Dry arctic conditions are experienced, and snow covers the area for 5 to 6 months ever year. In the summers. migratory cattle graze on the shrubs.

Fauna:

Matching the plant world, the animal kingdom in the Himalayas also show fantastic diversity. These animals are also remarkably different from other animals found elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent, for example, the plains of India. The diversity in wildlife is tremendous - be it in case of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians or even fishes, in the Himalayan lakes. These animals live in various habitats, ranging from dry temperate forests to areas above the tree line.

Like the plant kingdom, the animals also need to adapt to the conditions in the mountains like the biting cold, the lack or excess of rainfall in certain parts, the increase in altitude. Several behavioral and physiological adaptations have developed in these animals due to the extreme climatic conditions present in many parts of the Himalayas.For example, many animals seasonally migrate in search of food and better living conditions. Many travel from lower altitudes to higher elevations insummer in search of alpine grass. In winters, the animals tend to come down to lower altitudes to survive the bitterly cold winds.  Some animals hibernate in winter while others resist the cold with the help of their thick fur and bushy tails. In higher altitudes, to cope up with the rarefied air,animals have larger nasal cavities.

Mammals

Carnivores are the most elusive of all mammals in the Himalayas,especially in the barren cold deserts. There are a variety of carnivores in the higher mountains, some of which are rare and threatened with extinction. These animals were indiscriminately hunted in the past and now face competition from domestic livestock. This has had an adverse effect on the predator populations which barely manage to survive in these fragile ecosystems.

Tiger (Panthera Tigris)

One of the severely threatened animals in the Himalayas is the National animal of India - the Bengal Tiger, or simply, the tiger. Till the turn of the century , tigers were common in various parts of the Indian and Nepal Himalayas. However, they are severely threatened today due to large scale poaching.

For example, Kumaon and Garhwal were famous for their  tigers, which have been known to roam about in its lower districts. For centuries, this delicate natural balance was maintained. However, the increase in human and cattle population in the beginning of the 20th century led to the disturbance of this balance, and the first man-eaters started appearing. Soon the numbers of these man-eaters increased and Kumaon became famous. The hunter Jim Corbett became famous with his exploits in this region. In his classic "Man Eaters of Kumaon",Jim Corbett describes how he shot half a dozen of the most notorious killers in the district. One tiger had apparently killed 434 people before it fell to Corbett's shot.  In "Temple Tiger", he describes how he killed the Champawat tiger and the Panar leopard, which had hunted 836 human beings in the first decade of this century.

However from 1930s onwards, the number of tigers fell sharply with the increase in the number of hunters, both Indian princes and sportsmen of the British Raj.

 The situation deteriorated rapidly and in 1971, the Indian government banned the killing of tigers. Project Tiger was started and the Jim Corbett National Park was formed- the name honoring the famous hunter of the past. Although some argue that  the park and the Project have proved to be a wonderfully successful program to save the tigers of India,the fact remains that the project has not been free from controversies.Official figures put the the number of tigers to be close to 5000. However experts on the topic and independent sources say that the actual figure may be closer to 3000 and not  5000.  There is a rising demand for tiger related goods. Tiger skins and bones are in heavy demand. Poachers and smugglers have established a clever route by which tigers surface in the form of medicines and balms in Chinese markets as Chinese "medicine". Not a year goes by without stories of seizures of bones and skins by the customs officials. But these seizures are only the tip of the iceberg and the poaching still continues.

Leopard or Panther (Panthera pardus)

The panther is found at relatively lower elevations in the transition zone between the main Himalaya and cold deserts. They have the capacity to survive under very difficult conditions. The leopards are not restricted to forests like other members of the cat family. Leopards may hunt during the day if nights are very cold or if food is not available at night. In the cold deserts they tend to migrate according to the seasons, moving to lower elevations in winter and ascending to higher elevations in summer. This is primarily influenced by the availability of food and climatic conditions.Due to shortage of wild food, and the growing population of livestock, leopards maytake to cattle lifting in the mountainous areas.

Snow Leopard or Ounce (Panthera unica)

The elusive snow leopard has a pale grey coat on the upper side which may be pure white on the underside. It is believed to have been found over large parts of the cold desert regions in the past but in recent times its distribution has shrunk significantly. At present the snow leopard is found in parts of Ladakh, Spiti, Garhwal, Kumaon, and   at times migrating to other areas. Snow leopards number from 4 to 6 per 100 sq. kms in a relatively protected areas where preys are available easily.

 Information about the habits of this animal is very poor as the inaccessibility of its habitats makes observation by humans very difficult. The snow leopard may live in the grasslands and bare rocks near the snowline. They are usually nocturnal in habit, lying cleverly concealed amongst the rocks during the day and hunting at night. Their prey includes wild sheep and goats, musk deer, hares, marmotsand other rodents and at times even larger birds. They have the habit of establishing their territory quite like other members of the cat family.

The snow leopard is an altitudinal migrant, moving to the shelter of the valleys inwinter and ascending to higher reaches in summer. Like other beasts of preytheir movement too is governed by the migration of their main prey.

Leopard Cat (Felis bengalensis)

The Leopard cat  resembles a large domestic cat with rather long legs. Its color and markings give it the resemblance of a leopard. This cat is found upto an elevation of about 3500 m in and around forested areas of the cold desert.

It preys on small birds and animals. This cat is nocturnal in habit and prefers to live in the hollows of trees or amongst the rocks.

Jungle Cat (Felis chaus)

The jungle cat has a relatively short tail and long legs. In the cold desert regions of the Himalayas, this cat has a heavier fur. They inhabit areas upto an elevation of about 3500 m, usually preferring open tracts and grasslands. Often they are found in the vicinity of human settlements.

 Lynx (Felis isabellina)

The long erect  tufts of hair on the tips of its ears distinguish the lynx from other members of the cat family. There is usually  a sprinkling of spots on its coat in summer which may persist for some time but eventually disappear with the onset of the winter coat. The lynx is a rare species found in parts of Ladakh, Garhwal, and at high altitudes in other parts of the Himalayas

Dog Family

Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus chanku)

The Tibetan Wolf is a relatively large-sized animal with a dark coat which may be almost black. They are found in the cold desert areas, both in the open areas and forested tracts. In some areas they may live in the vicinity of nomads, migrating from one place to the other. Increased human pressure has led to decline in the population of this species.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

This is a richly coloured fox with long silky fur and superb bushy tail. Red is the dominant colour of its coat and hence the name.They are found in different parts of the cold desert areas of the Himalayas.

 Bear Family

 Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

The brown bear is a  fairly heavy animal with a distinctive brown coat.The shade of brown varies from season to season. They are found in different partsof the cold desert region, usually in the open rocky areas above or near the snowline. They too are altitudinal migrants moving with the melting snows insearch of new grass growth. The brown bear is omnivorous, eating both plants, insects, birds and small animals.

 Himalayan Black Bear (Selenarctos thibetanus)

The Himalayan bear is a relatively more compact animal than either the sloth or brown bear. They are usually found upto an elevation of about 4000 m in the transition zone between the main Himalaya and the cold desert.

 Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)

The Red Panda is an animal overshadowed by the larger, and more famous, Giant Panda. True to its name, the red panda is reddish brown in color.  It is a long-tailed mammal, with a raccoon-like appearance. The Red Panda, usually having the size of a large cat, is found in the forests of the main Himalayas.The red panda has soft, thick fur -  reddish brown on the back and black underneath.

The Red Panda is omnivorous and feeds on bamboo and other vegetation, alongwith fruits and insects. It lives in the high mountains among rocks and trees.

It is a nocturnal animal and usually  lives alone, in pairs, or in family groups. The litters generally contain one or two that are born in spring after a gestation period of about 130 days. The animal is gentle  and  easily tamed but usually resents being handled. It is an endangered species.

Weasel Family

Common Otter (Lutra lutra)

The common otter is  occasionally in the cold desert region usually in the fringe areas. They also frequent the lower altitudes and can be seen in places like the Corbett National Park.

Beech or Stone Marten (Martes foina)

The Beech is a slender graceful animal found above an elevation of about 2200 m. They live both in the forests and barren tracts near the treeline sheltering in the hollows of trees, under logs, amongst rocks or in holes in the ground.

Himalayan Weasel (Mustela sibrica)

The Himalayan Weasel is found above an elevation of about 2000 m to about the treeline, in forests, dry sandy slopes and even in low-lying wet areas.

Rodents

There are a large variety of rodents present in the Himalayas.These animals thrive in both the main Himalayan forests as well as the colddesert areas of the Transhimalayas. The rodent population includes the resident population , which have a fixed habitat, and the migrants which migrate with the change in seasons. Some common varieties include the Kashmir woolly flying squirrel, the Kashmir flying squirrel, and the Himalayan marmot.

 Himalayan Marmot

Usually the size of a cat, yet having a scientific name meaning "mountain mouse", the Himalayan Marmots are found in alpine meadows between10,000-14,000 ft. They are commonly found in the Upper Suru valley, from  Ringdom Gompa, all the way across the Pensi pass and into Zanskar.

The Himalayan marmot is distinguished from other marmot species by its dark chocolate-browncoat with contrasting yellow patches on the face and chest. Marmots live in small groups, consisting of an adult male, a couple of adult females, some sub-adults, and pups.

The marmots live in burrows and are hibernating animals. They hibernate for about seven months,beginning in late September and emerging in early May the next year. Marmots feed on grasses and flowering plants. Marmots communicate by physical contact and vocally by whistling. Also called "whistle pig", their most frequent call is a high-pitched whistle, which  warns colony members of danger.

Horse family

Tibetan Wild (Equus hemionus kiang)

The Tibetan wild or the Kiang  is the only member of the horse family found in the cold desert regions. The color of its coat is dark red which attains a darker tinge in winter. It has a narrower dorsal stripe and larger horse-like hooves than its counterpart found in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India.

The Tibetan wild is now  found in parts of Ladakh though once it was found over al arger area including Spiti. It lives in herds numbering upto 30 or so. Herds may be seen grazing in remote pastures, away from human presence. These animals too are altitudinal migrants.

 Yak

Yaks are the mammals that live at the highest altitudes in the world. They can climb up as high as 20,000 ft or around 6100m. Yaks tend to live at high altitudes  because of their thick coat and vulnerability to diseases. In fact, yaks normally cannot live below 10,000 ft above sea level.  The lungs of yaks are usually large in order  to absorb more oxygen in higher altitudes. Yaks can weigh up to a 1,200 pound (550 kg).

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