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Ecological and Socio-Cultural assessment of the High altitude Wetland: A Case study of The Bhagajang Wetland Complex in Western Arunachal Pradesh, India

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The Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh harbours 1672 high altitude wetlands and these wetlands play a significant role to maintain hydrological, ecological as well as cultural values. The present study aims to document the floral and faunal biodiversity as well as to understand dependencies and patterns of anthropogenic activities in the Bhagajang Wetland Complex (BWC), one of the four identified wetland complexes identified by WWF-India in western Arunachal Pradesh. Information on biodiversity was collected through random quadrat sampling and frequency grids. Semi structured interviews were also conducted to understand the socio-cultural values, dependency and patterns of anthropogenic activities in the wetland complex. More than 70 herb species, 2 direct evidences of mammals and 26 species of birds were documented from the alpine meadows as well as the catchment areas of the lakes. The anthropogenic activities in the region includes pilgrimage, traditional yak grazing and vast stretches of road construction in the wetland complex. The study outlines the need for the conservation of fragile ecosystem of the BWC through proper management and planning along with the incorporation of sustainable energy sources, proper garbage management as well as long term intensive research.
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ISBN: 978-81-923628-3-0 International Conference on Ecosystem Services of Wetlands- Ardrabhumi: 2016
Ecological and Socio-Cultural assessment of the High altitude Wetland: A Case study of The Bhagajang
Wetland Complex in Western Arunachal Pradesh, India.
Jaya Upadhyay*, Rajarshi Chakraborty and Kamal Medhi
WWF-India, Western Arunachal Landscape Programme, Tezpur, Assam.
jaya632008@yahoo.com
Abstract: The Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh harbours 1672 high altitude wetlands and these wetlands play a significant
role to maintain hydrological, ecological as well as cultural values. The present study aims to document the floral and faunal
biodiversity as well as to understand dependencies and patterns of anthropogenic activities in the Bhagajang Wetland Complex
(BWC), one of the four identified wetland complexes identified by WWF-India in western Arunachal Pradesh. Information on
biodiversity was collected through random quadrat sampling and frequency grids. Semi structured interviews were also conducted
to understand the socio-cultural values, dependency and patterns of anthropogenic activities in the wetland complex. More than
70 herb species, 2 direct evidences of mammals and 26 species of birds were documented from the alpine meadows as well as
the catchment areas of the lakes. The anthropogenic activities in the region includes pilgrimage, traditional yak grazing and vast
stretches of road construction in the wetland complex. The study outlines the need for the conservation of fragile ecosystem of
the BWC through proper management and planning along with the incorporation of sustainable energy sources, proper garbage
management as well as long term intensive research.
Keywords: Wetland, Biodiversity, Alpine ecosystem, Religious significance, Arunachal Pradesh
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Introduction
High altitude wetland or HAW is a generic term to
describe areas of swamp, marsh, meadow, fen, peat-land or
water bodies located at an altitude higher than 3000 m asl,
whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with
water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or saline. In
general, HAWs are areas located at altitudes between the
continuous natural forest border and the permanent
snowline (Chatterjee, et al., 2010). They are extreme
ecosystems, characterised by extreme adverse climate and
presence of a seasonal or diurnal permafrost layer. The
HAW are fed by snow-melts, precipitation and springs
unlike lower altitudes lakes which receive water from local
rains through streams and runoff. It plays a key role in
hydrology and ecology of rivers by acting as reservoirs or
aquifers for storing water in wet seasons and releasing
during the drier periods. Apart from the hydrological
significance, HAWs play crucial role in hosting
biodiversity, wildlife habitat and socioeconomic aspects
(ISRO, Government of India, 2012).
Among the globally distributed areas of HAWs, the
Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau is the largest and it
harbours numerous lakes of different geological origin in
myriad shapes and sizes. Arunachal Pradesh, by virtue of its
geographical position, climatic conditions and altitudinal
variations, is a biodiversity rich region in northeast India,
with large tracts of tropical wet evergreen, subtropical,
temperate and alpine forests (Paul, Khan, Das, & Dutta,
2010). The state is a part of the Eastern Himalaya Global
Biodiversity Hotspot (Myers, Mittermeier, Mittermeier, da
Fronseca, & Kent, 2000) and recognised as one of 200
globally important eco-regions (Olson & Dinerstein, 1998).
Arunachal Pradesh also ranks
second in the country after Jammu & Kashmir in the total
number of high altitude wetlands and there are
approximately 1672 high altitude wetlands in the state
(ISRO, 2011) which play a significant role in maintaining
hydrological & ecological balance in the upstream &
downstream regions (Kanwal, Samal, Lodhi, & Kuniyal,
2013).
Culturally too, HAWs are considered & revered as
sacred sites & their conservation is important for the myths
and beliefs of traditional people, especially in the Buddhist
regions of Tawang, West Kameng, Mechuka & Lohit
(Jayachandran, 2013). Tawang district, in the western most
part of the state, has more than 200 HAWs (ISRO,
Government of India, 2012), which, apart from being vital
repositories of biodiversity and critical watershed areas, are
equally important for a multitude of hydroelectric projects,
some in the present district, which are recent lifelines of the
state’s economy by maintaining flow of major rivers
(Jayachandran, 2013). However, most of these high altitude
wetlands are located in remote, inaccessible parts with a
year-round harsh climate with varied and sparse
demography including a large population of livestock
herders for whom the catchment areas contain vital
pasturelands. There is no scientific management plan
existing in terms of the long term conservation of these
wetlands (Jayachandran, 2013). In Arunachal Pradesh as
well as other mountainous parts of India, baseline studies
are lacking for most areas, particularly for areas higher than
4000 meters & there has been little long term monitoring of
hydrology & climatic variables (Eriksson, et al., 2009).
WWF-India, through its Western Arunachal
Landscape Programme, has been involved in the
conservation
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ISBN: 978-81-923628-3-0 International Conference on Ecosystem Services of Wetlands- Ardrabhumi: 2016
of some of these HAWs since 2005, jointly with Forest
Department, enforcement personnel, civil administration &
local communities. As part of the initiatives, four high
altitude wetland complexes have been identified for their
conservation requirements, namely Bhagajang High
altitude wetland complex (HAWC), Nagula HAWC,
Thembang Bapu Community Conserved Area HAWC and
Pangchen Lumpo Muchat Community Conserved Area
HAWC.
This paper is a part of the baseline study conducted
to prepare the future management strategies for the
conservation of the Bhagajang Wetland Complex (BWC).
The objectives of present baseline study ,conducted in the
month of September in 2013 and 2014, was to document the
presence of floral and faunal biodiversity, to understand the
dependencies and patterns of anthropogenic activities as
well as to assess potential threats to biodiversity in the
wetland complex.
Materials and Methods:
Study Area: The Bangajang Wetland Complex
(BWC) is located in the south west part of Tawang district
of Arunachal Pradesh, India, bordering West Kameng
district of Arunachal Pradesh in the South and Bhutan in the
West. The wetland complex is under the ownership of
Tawang Monastery by customary law. It is located at a
distance of 18 km from Sela Pass, connecting Tawang
district with rest of India and the settlement of Jung in
Tawang district is the nearest town (Fig 1). The complex is
inaccessible from Oct to March each year due to snow
cover.
The general topography of Bhagajang consists of high
broken ridges, alpine meadows and valleys with lakes and
the altitude of the complex varies between 4100 m to 4329
m asl. As per satellite images there are approximately 20
lakes of sizes ranging from 1ha to about 35ha in the area.
Approximate area of BWC is about 2300ha which has been
identified for recognition as a Ramsar Site by the State
Government. According to Tawang Monastery, 12 lakes of
BWC are considered to be very sacred by Buddhist
communities and every year thousands of pilgrims from
India and Bhutan visit these lakes in the month of August
to October (WWF India, 2008).
Fig 1: Map of Bhagajang Wetland Complex (Source:
WWF-India)
Methodology: The remoteness and inaccessibility
of Bhagajang and similar high altitude areas makes the
success of any fieldwork in the catchment entirely
dependent on available resources & logistical
arrangements. For the present study, therefore, no
stratification could be attempted in the sampling strategy;
rather random sampling was applied for rapid collection of
data relating to biodiversity. Existing human and livestock
trails, roads were used to access the sample sites including
mountain slopes, lake fringes and alpine meadows &
grazing grounds.
Data on vegetation diversity was collected using the
quadrate method (Sutherland, 2006), where random
quadrates of 5x 5 meters were sampled in different
locations, at varying inter- distances from 50-200 meters.
Attempts were made to fix the quadrates in a typically
representative section of each habitat type (Gungor, 2011).
In each quadrate, shrubs presence was documented
including their mean height/ abundance. Within the same
quadrate, a smaller quadrate of 1x1 meters (frequency
grids) was sampled which was further sub divided into
10cm X 10cm blocks for easy recording of number of herb
species which were very thickly distributed (Vogel &
Masters, 2001) for documentation of ground flora. The
same quadrates used for vegetation sampling were searched
for locating animal signs including hoof marks, tracks,
pellets, etc. Additionally, all signs and evidences
encountered in the survey trails were also recorded. All
collected data was entered, compiled & analysed in
Microsoft Excel.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the
monks and herders at the Bhagajang to understand the
cultural and sociological significance of the lakes and
pattern of anthropogenic activities.
Results:
A total of 55 quadrates were sampled for collecting
information on biodiversity of the area. The plots ranged
from 4047-4348 meters elevation, containing primarily
alpine vegetation forming krummholz and meadows, dotted
with lakes and broken by high barren ridges. The sampling
was done in & around the Bhagajang monastery, the sacred
lakes and along the roads to Naga GG and Jung. Some of
the lakes visited for collection of habitat data included
Gonpo La Tso (4249 m asl), Dorjee Phamu (4221 m asl),
Chandrezig La Tso (4399 m asl), Tso breh lake II (4222 m
asl), Jambyang La Tso (4050 m asl) and Dungchingma Tso
(4250 m asl).
Floral composition
Alpine vegetation is characterized by relatively high
biodiversity due to its fragmentation on isolated mountains
(Harmsen, 2008). 78 plant species were recorded during
the rapid assessment, of which approximately 45 were
documented inside the sampling quadrates which included
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ISBN: 978-81-923628-3-0 International Conference on Ecosystem Services of Wetlands- Ardrabhumi: 2016
approximately 10 grass species, 2 species of rhododendrons
and other alpine herbs. This reflects the high diversity of
alpine herbs and grasses in the catchment area, including
some rare medicinal and aromatic species (species like
Aconitum hookeri, Aconogonum sp, Rheum australe, etc).
A total of only 2 tree species and 7 shrub species were
identified in the quadrates, which formed the dominant
above-ground vegetation feature and in some location the
shrubs formed dense clusters and krummholz. The genus
Rhododendron was dominant in the composition, with R.
camelliiflorum & R. thomsonii among the two most
abundant species, interspersed with dwarf juniper scrub of
Juniperus squamata. Polygonaceae, Asteraceas and
Saxifragaceae family were most dominant among the herbs
and grass speies was mainly dominated by Poaceae and
Cyperaceae family.
While the mountain slopes were predominantly
covered in dense alpine scrub consisting of dwarf
rhododendrons & juniper, the grazing meadows had a dense
covering of diverse grasses, dominated by Kyllinga
odorata, Carex sp & Chrysopogon sp, interspersed with
flowering Polygonum calostachyum, Swertia hookeri &
Rheum australe. Fig 2 shows the most abundant shrubs
found in the quadrates, in terms of their relative abundance
(%).
Fig 2: Relative abundance of major shrub species in the
quadrates (N= 55)
The following figure 3 shows the major herb species, in
terms of their frequency of occurrence (%) in the quadrates.
Fig 3: Frequency of occurrence (%) of major herb species in
the quadrates (N= 55)
Fauna of Bhagajang
Mammals
While alpine mountain areas offer comparatively
easier detection of mammals at long distances due to
enhanced visibility, the harsh climate and terrain dictates
presence of only species with specialized adaptive
mechanisms can survive and flourish. Apart from the
direct sighting of large-eared pika (Ochotona macrotis), a
first record of the Leopard Cat through opportunistic
camera trap was also documented in the region at an
altitude of 4200 mtrs (Chakraborty, Nahmo, Upadhyay, &
Medhi, In press). The interviews with the monks and
herders, however, revealed information regarding presence
of several species including the endangered musk deer
(Moschus chrysogaster), Himalayan weasel (Mustela
sibirica), Asiatic wild dog (Cuon alpinus), Himalayan
marmot (Marmota himalayana) and Red fox (Vulpes
vulpes).
Birds
A total of 26 species of birds were documented
including species such as ruddy shelduck (Tadorna
ferruginea). This species has been reported to breed in the
high altitude wetlands of western Arunachal Pradesh
(Mazumdar, Maheshwari, Dutta, Borah, & Wange, 2011)
and Bhagajang could act as a vital breeding ground in the
region. Other species included the white winged grosbeak
(Mycerobas carnipes), rufous-breasted accentor (Prunella
strophiata), White-browed Rosefinch (Caprodacus
rododchrous) etc.
Socio-Cultural and Religious Value
The lake complex is highly sacred and culturally
very important. The most sacred of all the lakes is Dorjee
Phamu, where it is believed the goddess of prosperity
exists. Pilgrims make offerings of khadas (traditional
scarves), flowers and coins to this lake. The area being
limited to accessibility round the year, pilgrims mostly visit
during the month of August and September. In 2013 and
2014, approximately 2000 visitors from India and Bhutan
visited these lakes during this period especially during the
Dharma day (full moon day on the eight month of the
Buddhists Calendar). Vast majority of the visitors coming
to these lakes are Buddhist from West Kameng, Tawang
District and also from neighbouring Bhutan.
The alpine meadows of the Wetland Complex also serves
as the summer grazing lands for yaks and the summer
grazing period lasts for at least 3 months. The total number
of livestock was reported to be 75, out of which 40 yaks
belonged to the Tawang Monastery. Since the ownership of
the wetland complex lies on Tawang Monastery, the grazers
take care of the livestock belonging to the monastery to
avoid paying any taxes for the land. The products like ghee
and local cheese (chhurpi) collected from the livestock
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
Frequency of occurrence (%)
Herb species
Frequency of occurrence of major herb species
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
35
40
Relative abundance (%)
Shrub species
Relative abundance of major shrub species
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ISBN: 978-81-923628-3-0 International Conference on Ecosystem Services of Wetlands- Ardrabhumi: 2016
(owned by the Monastery) is handed over to the Monastery
instead of paying taxes.
Discussion:
All over the state, the high altitude lakes, along with
their spectacular biodiversity of the region are exhibiting a
wide spectrum of pressure by both biotic & abiotic factors
(Jayachandran, 2013). Most of these areas lack any
scientific or long term management system, and are looked
after by the communities, regarding both grazing, resource
use and movement of pilgrims. Though no accurate
assessment could be made regarding the extent and degree
of impact of anthropogenic activities, the socio-economic
pattern and demography in the Bhagajang area and its
history did provide valuable pointers regarding the potential
threat to the fragile alpine ecosystem.
Due to its proximity to Bhutan and two districts of
Arunachal, large scale road connectivity is under
construction in the wetland complex. With the available
information on these fragile ecosystem including the lakes
and their catchment as well as the alpine meadows, there is
an urgent need for proper management and planning for
any kind of anthropogenic activities in the wetland
complex.
Abundant signs of livestock presence was
encountered in the sampled part of the catchment, along
with the presence of makeshift huts inhabited by the
herders. The pressure of grazing in the area could not be
assessed but it has come to light that the tradition of rearing
yaks has been decreasing with time and that there are very
few undisturbed grazing area required for the yak. It is a
well-known fact that in the last two decades the change in
biodiversity under grazing pressure has been paid a lot of
attention, because it was identified as an important
characteristic in a disturbed ecosystem (Austin, Williams,
& Belbin, 1981) (Bakker, 1989), however there are a few
contrary conclusion about relationship between grazing
and biodiversity from studies by (Collins, 1987) (Bakker,
1989) . In the high altitude ranges of the Himalaya, grazing
is one of the important sources of revenue for many herding
communities including the Monpa tribe in the BWC. They
continue a long-standing tradition of grazing where they
move up to the alpine pasture in summer and descend to
lower reaches in the winter. As mentioned earlier, it has
been well documented that grazing has a detrimental effect
on communities with little history of grazing, but some
level of grazing is necessary in the areas with long history
of such activity (Andren, A, & A, 1997) (Naveh &
Whittaker, 1980). Although alpine areas are sensitive to
over-grazing & it forms a major issue in many high altitude
areas of the country, a longer study with detailed analysis
of physico-chemical properties of the soil and ground-
based flora will be able to assess the true impact of grazing
in Bhagajang.
The paramilitary forces, graziers, monks, pilgrims as well
as the road construction workers are the major stakeholders
for the collection and use of biomass (fuelwood) from the
area. Though there is no year-round constant human
presence in Bhagajang, there is considerable anthropogenic
activity by the pilgrims as well as the workers, which
incidentally coincides with the presence of the herders,
bringing the livestock to make full use of the post-monsoon
flush. Activities like cooking and space heating require
considerable amount of fuel at that altitude, the majority of
which comes in the form of fuelwood collected from the
lower areas of the wetland complex as well as from the
catchments of some of the lakes. With increasing
dependency on the fragile catchment areas in the alpine
zone and collection of tons of slow-growing timber from
the upper temperate zones, there is an urgent need to
introduce substitutes for fuel or at least invest in use of
some sustainable energy sources.
There is considerable generation of solid waste
through various activities and the high altitude conditions
of the area makes decomposition very slow. Management
of waste is a major issue in Bhagajang for which WWF-
India has tried to address through repeated cleanliness
drives in collaboration with concerned stakeholders.
Garbage dumping sites have also been constructed for
better management of waste material along with
construction of toilets for pilgrims. Considerable
awareness has also been generated regarding the harmful
effects of plastic and other non-degradable waste products
through the sensitization programs. Such activities should
also be incorporated in the management plan to preserve
the wetland complex. Over the recent past, road
construction and widening has also come forth as major
anthropogenic activities in the catchment area. A detailed
assessment is needed urgently to gauge their impacts on the
ecosystem already and to incorporate suitable strategies to
reduce damage in case of future activities.
The alpine zone of Himalayas exhibits a great deal
of variation in topography, precipitation, floristics,
physiognomy of vegetation and palaeohistory (Tambe &
Rawat, 2011). The study gives a definitive verdict
regarding richness of the biodiversity of the wetland
complex. The composition of the flora and presence &
abundance of different species found during the field
sampling indicates that the area contains a rich and diverse
assemblage of biodiversity including some rare and
valuable medicinal species. Further extensive surveys in
other areas of the catchment shall help in adding to the
inventory and locating other rare and endangered flora.
Regarding fauna, in spite of the low amount of signs
encountered during the field surveys, information on the
possible highest record for the presence Leopard Cat had
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ISBN: 978-81-923628-3-0 International Conference on Ecosystem Services of Wetlands- Ardrabhumi: 2016
been documented. Moreover, secondary information
collected indicates presence of endangered species such as
musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster), carnivores like Asiatic
wild dog (Cuon alpinus) and the Red fox (Vulpes vulpes).
For an area such as Bhagajang, camera trapping can be a
great tool to provide a robust list of mammalian fauna
present. A longer and more intensive survey in other
strategic areas, including opportunistic camera trapping is
hereby recommended.
Conclusion:
The conservation of high altitude wetlands and
lakes in the Himalaya poses an immense challenge to the
world (Gujja, 2007).It is especially a major challenge to
many governments in Asia, particularly in the context of
the increasing concerns of climate change & increasing
human activities (WWF & MoEF. Government of India,
2006). Apart from performing their vital ecological and
socio-cultural roles benefitting a vast and growing semi-
urban and rural human population in the region, these
wetlands are vital for ensuring the long term water security
for the coming generations. By the 2050s, access to
freshwater in Asia, particularly in large basins, is projected
to decrease (Eriksson et al, 2009). The BWC acts as a vital
repository of high altitude biodiversity and also supports as
an important basin for the Tawang Chu (river). With
emerging threats such as unplanned road construction and
unregulated tourism and its associated issues, there is an
urgent need to conserve this wetland complex and its
catchment area through proper management planning
involving the local communities and the concerned
stakeholders.
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The alpine vegetation of the Sikkim Himalaya has received limited attention despite being a part of the Eastern Himalaya global biodiversity hotspot. The current study undertaken in the third highest landscape in the world—the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP)—provides information on the different alpine vegetation communities and aspects of their ecology. The transverse spurs from the unique north–south Khangchendzonga range result in a landscape level differentiation of the Outer, Inner, and Tibetan Himalaya in just 50 km. The alpine vegetation based on numerical classification has been segregated into 11 types with the extensive ones being Juniperus indica scrub, Rhododendron scrub, Kobresia duthiei moist meadow, Kobresia nepalensis moist meadow, Kobresia pygmaea dry meadow, and Anaphalis xylorhiza mixed meadow. Based on Canonical Correspondence Analysis, the 3 environmental gradients of rainfall, elevation, and soil were found to be the primary determinants of vegetation patterns. A total of 585 species of angiosperms belonging to 67 families and 243 genera were recorded in a 390-km2 area. Compared to the Western Himalaya, proportions of alpine scrub and sedge meadows were higher, whereas herbaceous formations and grassy meadows were limited in extent. The alpha species diversity was found to be lower mainly because the alpine region here is partly isolated, narrower, fragmented, and dominated by a depauperated scrub zone.