CASE STUDY: “Management Planning Of Himalayan High Altitude Wetlands. A Case Study of Tsomoriri and Tsokar Wetlands in Ladakh, India”
By: Pankaj Chandan, Archana Chatterjee and Parikshit Gautam
• Tsomoriri and Tsokar wetlands are rich in biodiversity and comprise diverse flora and fauna. It is a source for various rivers that originate from this region. It provides valuable pastures to the local communities (Changpas) who are dependent on the livestock for their livelihood. Like other wetlands of India, even these are under constant threat of extinction due to elevating developmental pursuit. The problem becomes dire in these high altitude regions as the peak period of biological activities (such as breeding, nesting) coincides with that of the tourism. This impacts the breeding grounds of several endangered species and their breeding success. Other Problems encountered are: Tourism, Grazing pressure and threat to catchment area, Habitat degradation, Human wildlife conflict and unplanned developmental activities. It is a home for various endangered species and provides shelter for the migratory birds. Conservation initiative was undertaken by WWF India and Department of Wildlife Protection Government of J&K. They provided the basic framework for an effective management plan to conserve and manage the wetland for biodiversity and people.
• Both the wetlands lie in Changthang plateau of the eastern Ladakh which are an important biogeographic province within Trans Himalayas. This tableland forms a western extension of Tibetan plateau and lies at an altitude of 4400mtrs above mean sea level. This region exhibits austere climatic conditions and unique array of flora and fauna. Less than 1% of the total geographical area is under cultivated and most of the vegetated zone is used as grazing grounds by pastoral communities. Vegetation is sparse and productivity peaks only during the short summer season as the climate is inhospitable during the winters. Area is marked by windswept desserts, arctic conditions and barren hills. The soil type is sandy or sandy loam.
• The two Wetlands are frozen from December to March and when they start melting in April, then is the time when the migratory birds arrive for breeding and after the completion of their breeding cycle, leave in October and November. They are important breeding grounds for waterfowl and the ONLY BREEDING GROUND FOR BARHEADED GOOSE (Anser indicus) in India and black necked crane (Grus nigricollis) outside China. Borax deposits are found in dried marshy areas and around the wetlands. In summers the temperature ranges from 0oC to 30oC and in winters from -10oC to -40oC.
• It comprises fresh to brackish water lake (<5.85 g/l NaCl during mid summer and spread to an acre of ca. 120km2 with max. depth of 40m). Originally the lake had several outlets into the Sutlej river system but now it forms a huge circumscribed basin which is fed by two main streams - one from north and other from the south west. This creates sweeping areas of wetlands and sheltered bays with small islands. A fertile plain below the KORZOK village (one of the highest areas to be cultivated in the world) is formed by a third stream which enters the lake from the West.
• It is a salt water lake which is characterized by the presence of large heaps of salt in it. The Lake receives water from the fresh water lake STARTSAPUK TSO as well as from the north eastern end. Tsokar is an irregularly L-shaped water body.
• It is a breeding ground for bar headed goose and brown headed gull. Two pairs of endangered black necked crane regularly breed in this wetland. It consists of around 232 species of vascular plants and is rich in floral diversity. Northern parts of the catchment basins are the best sites for Tibetan ARGALI in Ladakh. Out of 300 argali in Ladakh around 200 occur in this region.
PROBLEMS AND THREATS
1. TOURISM: construction of road for tourism purposes, right up to the lake has opened up this once remote basin. Due to the absence of garbage disposal facilities, the tourists and locals dump the garbage into nearby streams as well as marmot, mouse, hare or vole burrows.
2. GRAZING: over grazing by domestic livestock has degraded Rupshu valley and lead to a decline in grazable biomass for wild geese and ungulates. Soil compaction and deep barren jeep tracks are commonly seen around the camping grounds.
3. DEGRADATION OF CATCHMENT AREA: the locals and the residents of the KORZOK village heavily exploit the vegetation for purposes such as food, fodder and in particular the fuel wood leading to denudation of the catchment areas.
4. HABITAT DEGRADATION: based on topographic and hydrographic evidences, it was inferred that the lake level had oscillated in past, first falling notably during the ice age and then increasing in the recent past. This increase in water level due to precipitation has lead to submerging of some islands that were crucial for some nesting bird species. The disappearance of these islands has lead to a decline in the numbers of dependent avian species and other organisms associated with it.
5. UNPLANNED DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES: are mainly sectoral and due to lack of dialogue between the governmental and developmental agencies. Building of tourist facilities near the catchment area and lake shores, deployment of large contingent of paramilitary forces and siting of generators near the lake have raised concerns in various ways.
METHODOLOGY FOR WETLAND CONSERVATION
For implementation of an effective management plan, views from the Stakeholder consultants, policy makers, inputs from local communities especially farmers and scientists were taken into account for conservation and management of key species and their habitats. The key components of a management plan include:
1. GUIDING PRINCIPLES: provide information regarding wetland management.
2. COMMUNITY INTERESTS: Local nomadic community and farmers claim many key areas (pastoral and agricultural lands) which they manage themselves as they are the sources of livelihood for these people. These people have certain economic and community developmental aspirations and goals that should be supported.
3. CARING FOR WILDLIFE: use of natural resources should be ecologically sustainable and should not adversely affect the conservation of biodiversity in that particular area.
4. MANAGING TOURISM ACTIVITIES: for recreational motives should be sustainable and in a well organized manner. Impacts of the tourism activities should be minimized and no key habitat area should be allowed for camping and other such purposes. Community based tourism such as local home stays and local guides should be encouraged.
5. REGULATION OF DEVELOPMENTAL ACTIVITIES AND INFRASTRUCTURE: Unplanned developmental activities should be strictly prohibited as they have adverse effects on these very fragile ecosystems.
• Overall the management planning exercise has brought together all the stakeholders from different sectors that are important for the conservation, management and restoration of both the wetlands. Scientific inputs have further strengthened the goal. At the same time it is important to strengthen the community based aspirations by handing over the ownership for conservation activities to the local communities and help them maintain it.
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