Republic of Nepal’s animal kingdom
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.
The PIT region has high endemicity in terms of species richness and they require extensive habitat areas with high-quality corridor linkages between the habitats for their long-term survival.
But of late, the region has suffered from over-extraction of resources, haphazard market-driven land-use practices, intensive agriculture, overgrazing, unmanaged tourism, and unplanned infrastructure development. These have lead to habitat destruction and fragmentation in an already neglected forest habitat.
The Red Panda Network (RPN) initiated its conservation journey in 2007 with its efforts in eastern Nepal, and with a commitment to conserve wild red pandas and their habitat through the education and empowerment of local communities.
To fill the knowledge gap of locals in the region on its mammalian diversity, the RPN has been conducting surveys mobilising local youths as forest guardians for systematic camera trap studies with a network of approximately 200 community forests.
The research is the most comprehensive after Hooker’s travel to the region nearly 200 years ago, and has already succeeded with the ground-breaking discovery of wildlife species for the first time in Nepal, and the highest-ever Bengal tiger sighting in Nepal. The longest run community-based monitoring of wildlife in the region has been able to document and photograph 25 mammal species from five orders and fifteen families, among them, were six cat species indicating higher diversity of felids in the PIT.
Some of the noteworthy species that have been photographed in the region include red panda Ailurus fulgens, Bengal tiger Panthera tigris, common leopard Panthera pardus, marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata, Himalayan serow Capricornis thar, Himalayan goral Naemorhedus goral, Assam macaque Macaca assamensis and Himalayan black bear Ursus thibetanus. The PIT is also home to the Critically Endangered Chinese pangolin Manis pentactyla and White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis.
Eastern Nepal also has an ethnically diverse population mix, many of whom rely on the forests for traditional healing practices, unfortunately the very reason endangered animals and their body parts are smuggled across the border. The porous border of the region to Tibet and India has also made illegal trade easier for various wildlife including the Chinese pangolin — the world’s most trafficked mammal. A study has inferred a possibility of an organised network of poachers and traders in the region often involving local unemployed youth.
This rich assemblage of the wild mammals demonstrates the significance of eastern Nepal as an important ecological zone. The recently published paper on photographic evidence of the Bengal tiger, Nepal’s first marbled cat, among others has highlighted the importance of Panchthar, Ilam and Taplejung as an important biological corridor for tigers, red panda, and other sympatric species at a transboundary level.
Likewise, the paper suggests the need to prioritise the region for community-centric conservation designation of national and transboundary importance.
This International Red Panda Day on 18 September is a timely reminder to prioritise the protection of the ecologically rich and biodiverse Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung region before we stand witness to the loss of many more species.
Sonam Tashi Lama and Janam Shrestha are with the Red Panda Network.