When British naturalist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker first made his ecological expedition in eastern Nepal from October through December of 1848, a flock of mountain sheep was grazing around the Tumling-Jaubari area of Ilam district.
One hundred and seventy-two years since then, the region has witnessed a tragic loss of the mountain sheep, called Argali. Encroachment of natural habitats and human activity have also depleted other mammalian species.
Hooker’s expedition travelled northwards from Taplejung to the valleys of Yangma and Yalung, and his Himalayan Journal account of the trip is the first ecological documentation of eastern Nepal’s rich biodiversity. He was accompanied by shooter and specimen collectors of Brian H. Hodgson, a pioneer naturalist and ethnologist who later became the British resident in Kathmandu.
Since then, the landscape of eastern Nepal has metamorphosed, forest coverage and weather patterns have altered, socioeconomic and cultural values have been transformed. Yet, there is still a lack of systematic study of mammalian diversity in this neglected but biologically diverse part of the eastern Himalaya.
The eastern Himalaya is one of the world’s 34 Global Biodiversity Hotspots and has been identified among the six transboundary landscapes to be protected. The region spans a wide spectrum of ecological zones containing parts of three Global Biodiversity Hotspots and is the meeting place of three biogeographic realms: the Kangchenjunga Landscape, which extends across eastern Nepal, Darjeeling, and Sikkim of India, and western Bhutan.
Kangchenjunga Landscape with an area of more than 25,000 sq km includes 19 protected areas, including the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) in Nepal, India’s Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve, Singalila National Park, and Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary.
The Kangchenjunga Landscape in Nepal represents four eastern Himalayan ecoregions ranging from the Himalayan alpine meadows and subalpine conifer forest to the eastern Himalayan broadleaf, and the Tarai-Duar savannas and grasslands stretching across four districts – Taplejung, Panchthar, Ilam, and Jhapa.
The landscape comprises 11 bioclimatic zones, 23 forest types with 32.15% canopy cover, exhibiting a vast variation in physiography, and altitudinal and climatic conditions resulting in rich faunal and floral diversity. And it provides habitat to about 160 types of mammals, 580 bird species, and more than 1,400 flowering plants, some of which are globally threatened, endemic, rare or endangered.
Inside the broader region of the Kangchenjunga Landscape in Nepal, there is an important forest corridor dominated by human settlements, a network of community forests, private and public lands stretched along with Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) districts. The unprotected forest patches in those districts have much biological significance as they provide connectivity between the protected areas of Nepal and India, harbouring important species diversity and movement.
These forest patches contain approximately half of the PIT area suitable for the red panda, of which 85% is unprotected. The Red Panda, Habre in Nepali, is a flagship species of eastern Himalaya and a permanent dweller of the unprotected forest of the three districts. The PIT region also includes globally Important Bird Areas: Upper Mai-Valley Forests and Tamor Valley.