What are the REAL risks to Himalayan flora?

IF intelligent seed-collection or the growing of plants originating in the Himalaya in gardens are not threats to the flora of the Himalaya, then are there any?  YES - there are also ways of doing things better, in a non-damaging way.  It is one thing to alert people to problems, Chris Chadwell, often can draw attention to or come up with solutions to the problems.....

Having both the skill and expertise to understand what I am looking at in terms of plants and vegetation (in fact my knowledge in this respect is second-to-none) during my expeditions along the Himalaya (I actually go up into the mountains to see for myself - one cannot become an expert on Himalayan flora sat in an office) and having travelled more widely along the Himalaya than anyone with associated botanical knowledge, over a period of over 30 years, my evidence is worth listening to.  Yes, others know parts of the Himalaya better or specialise in genera or plant families, having built up more familiarity with these than myself and there are travellers who have trekked or mountaineered more, e.g. I was impressed to bump into someone who had been to Nepal 23 times, on my last visit there but he knew nothing about plants.  Overall though, my expertise in the study, cultivation and conservation of Himalayan flora is second-to-none (excuse making such an un-English proclamation).


The 'Snow Columbine' (AQUILEGIA  NIVALIS) - dug up en masse by local botanists for a failed 'CONSERVATION' project! (photo: B.O.Coventry)

The GREATEST risk to 'Rare and Endangered' species in the Himalaya is being  DUG UP by local botanists in futile attempts at ex-situ 'CONSERVATION'!!!

The PROPER way to ATTEMPT to grow RARE plants in botanical gardens in the Himalaya is by SEED COLLECTION but local botanists (and indeed most Western botanists know little or nothing about how to do this).  Instead, as few local botanists can recognise plants when in seed (i.e. at the fruiting stage) - this SKILL takes time and dedication to develop, they tend to only go into the mountains when plants are in flower, they then, DIG UP, the SUPPOSEDLY 'Rare and Endangered' species, transporting them down thousands of feet, to be planted out under HOT and DRY conditions in University or Institute botanic gardens.  Any gardener in the UK knows that TRANSPLANTING plants at the height of the summer makes no sense.  The Indian botanists have no training in horticulture and are NOT passionate gardeners, indeed are NOT hand-on gardeners AT ALL.  It is hardly surprising that ALMOST all of the plants DUG UP, in the Himalaya by them, rapidly EXPIRE.....   Clever that.  If you were to visit these botanic gardens, just a short time after they had been paid significant amounts of money to undertake projects for ex-situ conservation of 'Rare & Endangered' species, they would have found it difficult to show you any of these plants being grown..... Oh Dear....

FORTUNATELY, it turns out that THESE SUPPOSEDLY 'RARE and ENDANGERED' species are neither RARE nor ENDANGERED.  The whole thing is certainly FARCICAL at the very least.  Should not ATTENTION be drawn to this? I wonder why it is not?  Far better to be BLAMING foreigners for HARMING THE ENVIRONMENT in the Himalaya by SEED COLLECTION (WHICH DOES NOT DAMAGE THE ENVIRONMENT).  A smoke-screen, perhaps?

Surely, the Governments of Himalayan countries, instead of INCREASING rules and regulations, which will DETER collaboration with FOREIGNERS, whose skills and expertise they NEED, should ENCOURAGE such involvement - and be GRATEFUL that people like Chris Chadwell are willing to DEVOTE their lives to studying the STUDY, CULTIVATION and CONSERVATION of Himalayan flora!  Individual botanists and Institutions in Himalayan countries SHOULD have JUMPED at the opportunity (AT NO FINANCIAL COST TO THEM WHATSOEVER) of accepting Chris' GENUINE offers to help but they have not.  Chris has BENT OVER BACKWARDS trying for 30 years.

He has the skills and expertise to TRANSFORM the PROTECTION and CONSERVATION of Himalayan flora, yet has been COMPLETELY IGNORED and INSTEAD attempts have been made to DISCREDIT him.......

Just what is going on?????

An important principle is that IF someone does not understand what they see, how can they meaningfully comment upon such matters. Not knowing what they are talking about does not stop certain people writing about too many topics!

A typical town in the foothills of the Western Himalaya - causing problems with poorly regulated construction of houses, which damage the local environment


So what are the serious risks to Himalayan flora?  The best example is the Kulu Valley, Himachal Pradesh;  similar problems apply, with more or less seriousness, along most of the Himalaya.  Bhutan has set the best example, being by far the least spoilt region of the Himalaya, thanks to their Buddhist respect for all living things and the environment but for how much longer can this be maintained?

Then there is Kashmir - which has amongst the worst and best examples of looking after Himalayan flora!  I have only visited once since the late 1980s but observed first hand that some of the mountain meadows are MUCH richer than they were when I was last there nearly 30 years ago.  In all probability this applies widely on the Indian/Pakistan border but one cannot confirm this as  when in such 'sensitive' border districts one is likely to be mistaken for a militant attempting to cross the border; in such circumstances there is the risk of arrest and if a "shoot first, ask questions later" approach is adopted by army patrols, in extreme cases being killed!) 

Why, you are asking, would a border area be a wonderful 'nature reserve'?  Less grazing, as the shepherd's risk being considered militants mean the delicate alpine flowers, we so enjoy flourish (though SOME grazing is required, otherwise rank grasses and more competitive, rank and robust but less attractive, specimens would start to take over.  Kashmir has long suffered from over-grazing - I noticed that back in the 1980s.  Thus the army and military police are INADVERTANTLY acting as NATURE RESERVE WARDENS. No local or international nature conservation could possible afford to hire such numbers of wardens themselves....  This unexpected bonus cannot justify the tens of thousands (on both sides who have died in Indian-controlled Kashmir (this affected P.Kohli & Co. but it is not appropriate to go into detail) since partition of India, which stems from disputed Kashmir territory.  The part controlled by Pakistan is known as AZAD Kashmir.


Landslides are common-place during journeys by roads in the Himalayan foothills - and crossing the Great Himalaya, which tear away trees, shrubs and more delicate flowers - is anyone suggesting that a strictly limited amount of seed collection (which leaves the plant alive and unless intensive and at a ridiculous level, could not possible harm the colonies/population of individual species) is a major issue in terms of harm being done to the flora


I first visited Himachal Pradesh (my earlier expeditions to the Himalaya had been to the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh) working as a tour leader (on what could be described as a 'plant hunting expedition' - rather worthwhile these expeditions) for West Himalayan Holidays in July 1985.  Our base was Manali, at the head of the Kulu Valley, though the main part of this holiday (for the clients) was a trek up the Miyah Nullah, Lahoul, then an unspoilt valley in the borderlands of Western Tibet.  This valley was chosen because it came within the rain-shadow of the Great Himalaya range, so was much drier at that time of year than monsoon-drenched Kulu.  My job was to escort the clients, show them flower-rich places and identify each plant.  This was exhausting during trips in a coach - as we sped past road-side flowers, assorted clients called out for me to name each one which flashed by!

Having returned to Himachal Pradesh a number of times since, I have to say that I am disheartened by what I observed.  Around Manali itself, there has been a surge in construction of hotels to cater for the vast increase primarily in Indian tourists; there are some foreign tourists but they now represent a small fraction of the total.  In the 1980s, Indian tourists were relatively few.  Other than for pilgrims, the mountains held little appeal. Nowadays, one encounters large numbers eager to catch their first glimpse of snow (and glimpse is the case, if they turn up at the wrong time of year for snow).  I must admit to being amused seeing tourists hiring large coats (even skis - not for use but posing for pictures in the snow) at the bottom of the pass, when there is no snow on the top of the pass!  Yes, snow is found all year-round in the high mountains but in summer months, a trek thousands of feet higher is required to find it.  With increased numbers of Indian tourists, many wild (native) plants have been trampled out of existence - the cause is not the modest numbers of foreign tourists.  It is a favourite trick of media (around the world) to blame "foreigners".

Chris Chadwell with his youngest son, half way up the Rohtang Pass, enjoying the "party mood" of some Punjabis singing and dancing at the prospect of seeing snow for the first time in their lives, eager to have their picture taken with some visiting foreigners!

I led another trek for West Himalayan Holidays the next year and other tours followed in Himachal Pradesh led by others.  One group explored just above Manali, delighting in spotting a colony of the now uncommon and beautiful 'West Himalayan Lily' (LILIUM POLYPHYLLUM).  However, when a Lily enthusiast searched for the lily a couple of years ago, in the same spot, he could find no trace - no doubt as a result of the increased removal of wild trees to expand cultivated fields, attached to the ever-increasing number of homes being built in the hills for locals benefitting from the prosperity of Manali due to tourism.

I have detailed information about the plants of the Kulu Valley and beyond, due to extensive botanical collections made on behalf of the Urusvati Institute, Naggar, Kulu valley for the Russian Nicholas Roerich in the 1930s by Dr Walter Koelz and Thakur Rup Chand.  Duplicate botanical specimens were collected for this Institute and the University of Michigan Herbarium at Ann Arbor, USA.  Seed was also gathered for the United States Department of Agriculture.  These herbarium collections are the best that have ever been made in this region and were identified (then labelled and mounted on card, before incorporating into the Ann Arbor herbarium) by Dr R R Stewart who had spent a life-time studying the flora of Pakistan and Kashmir (aren't eccentric foreigners so useful); upon retiring from his post as Principal of Gordon College, Rawalpindi, Pakistan, he became a Research Associate at Ann Arbor.  HIs life's work was put to good use.  What a pity my expertise is not being utilised in a similar way. 

What happened to the duplicate set of pressed specimens left at the Urvusvati Institute (now part of the ROERICH museum at Naggar in the Kulu Valley, Himachal Pradesh, 80 years ago?  Well, they are still LANGUISHING there to this day!  It is entirely possible that many may still be in good condition (though some will surely have rotted away by now or suffered insect infestation).  I have repeatedly tried to gain access to these specimens during my visits to the Kulu Valley but this has not proved possible!  I wish to assess what remains (I am the best person in the world to do this).  Those specimens which remain, could easily be cross-referenced with the set at Ann Arbor (I would be the best person to supervise this) - after all American botanists, led by Dr Stewart completed the hard and time-consuming part of RELIABLY identifying the specimens decades ago.  I was willing to start this project in a voluntary capacity, speaking to those in charge but no.... What an INEXCUSABLE waste of all that time and effort plus no little skill - the specimens have informative accompanying field notes (seldom seen in pressed specimens collected in the Western Himalaya these days).

After mounting on card, the specimens would need to be organised into cabinets (I could supervise this).  A herbarium could be established at the Roerich Museum (see: This would represent an INVALUABLE resource and contribute a much-needed reference to improve the standard of identification of plants in the region.  But would Indian botanists actually visit and use the herbarium to help RELIABLY identify the plants they come across from the Kulu Valley, Lahoul and surrounding districts (and regularly publish papers about) - including those which are supposedly 'Critically Endangered'? I cannot but wonder?  Such biologists, who travel to the Western Himalaya from all over India (for some inexplicable reason) to study plants SHOULD deposit a duplicate set of botanical specimens in a local herbarium (though cannot be blamed for not doing so if there are none).  I don't know of a nearby herbarium.  Is the closest at the Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun?  Unless you are an especially skilled field botanist who can RELIABLY name plants whilst in the Western Himalaya, it is ESSENTIAL to gather a set of quality pressed  VOUCHER specimens, to use to verify any preliminary identifications.  Perhaps someone from the UK media, who specialises in the Himalaya, could pay a visit and track down the missing specimens at the Roerich Museum, inspiring the authorities to contact me to ask for help.....  They are the best quality specimens EVER collected in Himachal Pradesh, before or since.

A colony of GENTIANA TUBIFLORA - BEFORE it was trampled out of existence at the top of the Rohtang Pass


Moving out of Manali and heading up the Kulu Valley, one encounters the Rohtang Pass.  At one time this was SUPERIOR plant-wise to the famous 'VALLEY OF FLOWERS' (an Indian National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site - though I am uncertain about just how many alpine plants are truly ENDEMIC i.e. found nowhere else, as nobody actually can say this with confidence).  For many genera of plants in the Himalaya, such as the taxonomically challenging IMPATIENS, it is ESSENTIAL for any specimen considered to be "new" to be checked with specialists in the West (or Japan), otherwise it is IMPOSSIBLE to be certain it is actually "new-to-science" and even if it is, given how little field-work is undertaken in the Himalaya (it is a vast area to cover), how can one tell that it is restricted to one small area?  Balsams are especially difficult to press and unless they are preserved well, flower colour is recorded when fresh and other notes taken, botanists CANNOT reliably distinguish similar species - so they could easily be mistaken for a commoner species.

When I first explored for flowers on the Rohtang in 1985, though suffering from over-grazing to an extent, it was still quite rich.  Near the top was a single small tent.  Now, during the season, a small village appears to cater for tourists and truck drivers transporting goods and fuel to Lahoul and Ladakh.  At the pass itself, the wonderful expanses of miniature primulas are long gone, trampled out of existence by the hords of Indian tourists, some on horseback (pony-rides are popular under favourable weather conditions).  I feel deeply depressed by this.  It is getting worse.  Part way down the pass was a lovely stretch of wet rocks which supported other primulas, yet this was recently bull-dozed out-of-existence.  The 'road' over the Rohtang was in a terrible state last time I crossed, a few years ago.

One way of escaping the hordes of INDIAN tourists who descend upon the Rohtang Pass when the weather is good, trampling flowers to death - chose a day when it has just or is snowing and head at least 300m above the pass


In 2012 I reached the Sach Pass, on the border with Kashmir.  This is the richest pass plant-wise  I have come across in the whole of the Himalaya - more than a match for Rohtang at its peak.  Yet I fear, sooner rather than later, it will suffer a similar fate to the Rohtang.  Thankfully (for the plants, not the local people) the risk of militants reaching from Kashmir has meant relatively few have taken this route yet (in the 19th century it was one of the major routes to the Kashmir Valley). Far better to make this area a UNESCO World Heritage Site, than protecting the FORMER glories of the over-rated 'Valley of Flowers' in Uttarkhand.  Who in the world is in the best position to OBJECTIVELY judge the true plant wealth of each place in the Himalaya?  Chris Chadwell. 

Over-grazing

This is a long-standing problem in Kashmir (for centuries) and many other parts of the Himalaya - mainly caused by sheep and especially goats (who will devour almost anything)!  As I explain elsewhere, it is in fact over-grazing that has caused and keeps parts of Ladakh desert-like - NOT the low rainfall alone!  Since partition of India and territorial disputes between India and Pakistan, the areas of which some shepherds/people can graze their animals has been much reduced, increasing the grazing pressure in some places.







Goats - the major culprits with over-grazing in the Himalaya

Over-grazing by yaks is a serious problem in some parts of the Himalaya - though a certain level of grazing is required to maintain some flower-rich pastures


Illegal collection and smuggling of plants for use in AYUVEDIC (Indian Medicine) by INDIANS


Trekking/mountaineering groups polluting the environment by dropping waste/litter

Sadly, an all-too-common sight when trekking in the Himalaya - I have seen similar or worse in many places; it destroys the experience for me!

Such behaviour damages Himalayan flora - too many people have no consideration

Individual trekkers and those providing trekking services must adopt a much more responsible attitude towards the environment, burning paper on the camp-fires, whilst carrying back plastic and metal items, to be re-cycled (but re-cycling schemes need to be introduced in villages and the towns from where treks begin).  And more innovative schemes such as one I came across in Nepal in 2013, which converted many items of rubbish, from crisp packets to tyres, into useful items (see immediately below):

Raw materials - collected crisp packets; I have eaten my fair share of Lays 'American Style Cream & Onion' flavour!

The finished products - tough, hard-wearing mats and bowls; I use both of these in my home back in the UK (the latter contains coins for use on buses etc.

The Nepalese lady running the business (helped by another eccentric Brit) who had a small shop attached to a busy restaurant popular with Westerners in Kathmandu (note the hand bags displayed, made from old tyres) - there are solutions to all problems

Local waste/rubbish from towns and villages being illegally dumped in Himalayan foothills


I have been SHOCKED at how much rubbish is ROUTINELY tipped over the edge of roads in the Himalayan foothills - with NO attempt to dispose of in a responsible manner!


I once took 3 members of the Himalayan Plant Association to the foothills of the Western Himalaya.  We visited Shimla (Simla) summer capital of the Raj.  'Flora Simlensis' written by Col. Sir Henry Collett, was published in 1921.  The frontispiece is a line drawing of LILIUM POLYPHYLLUM - which the author states was common in Simla woods.  It is not know and in all probably is extinct from the immediate area.  The environment (compared to what is was prior to Independence) around Shimla leaves much to be desired - it is not just the lily which has gone.  All the problems associated with a town in Northern India can easily be seen in Shimla.  A few refuges aside (around the best hotels), another depressing place for a plant enthusiast like me who knows its glorious past.

The worse offender I have come across (to-date) though is Gulmarg (which I think once meant the MEADOW OF FLOWERS).  I returned to Kashmir (after an absence of over 20 years due to safety concerns).  My visit to Gulmarg in 2012 (which has, or perhaps this honour has been over-taken by now, the world's highest golf course) was not pleasant. This was one of the hill-stations the British would "repair" to, escaping the heat of the Indian Plains.  Below where I camped on my 1983 Botanical Expedition to Kashmir, is now the start of the first stage of the 'Gulmarg Gondola' - which is the world's second highest operating cable car (built by the French firm Pomagalski); Wikipedia gives this as 2600m (8,530'). The second stage takes tourists (ferrying 600 per hour) to below the Aphawat Peak (which Wikipedia says is 4200m (13, 780').  Much as when it is working (adverse weather and essential maintenance frequently mean the second stage is not operating) it provides an easy ride to higher elevations, the impact upon the surrounding area has been terrible.  Particularly along the wide, informal track beside the Gondola, which the thousands able to ascend to the mountains on foot take to avoid the charge (or the long queues which often develop).  The charming, bubbling clear stream I camped beside in 1983 is now a muddy, polluted mess.  Litter is all over the place (and much besides) and the flowers have suffered - many long gone, though, one can still find plenty of 'Himalayan May-Apple' (PODOPHYLLUM HEXANDRUM).  Remarkable resilience, as this is one of the Himalayan plants which is supposedly 'Rare and Endangered' (even listed under CITIES, see: https://sites.google.com/a/chadwellseeds.co.uk/main/c-i-t-e-s).  I wonder how many other GENUINELY 'rare and endangered' plants from around the world could thrive under such adverse conditions?  Perhaps I am correct in asserting that it is neither rare nor endangered (let alone critically-so, as no doubt it is sometimes described).

As for the main part of Gulmarg - unless one comes for skiing - in the winter months, when snow conveniently masks what lies underneath, I cannot recommend it.

Then there are Indian 'poachers' (not foreigners I might add) who come to the mountains in search of medicinal plants.   I myself, have never encountered such 'hunters' of medicinal plants but a former member of the Himalayan Plant Association, who has trekked widely in remoter parts of the Western Himalaya, found roots of 'Himalayan Marsh Orchid' (DACTYLORHIZA HATAGIREA) being dried on a rock (strung together). The root of this is known as 'dbang-lag', meaning hand-shaped root.  Whilst these are collected legitimately by staff of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute, Dharamsala, Northern India, the material found were not from official collectors!  And one suspects, rather than leaving most of the colony, the paochers probably dig them all up.   The truth is it is impossible to accurately assess the scale of the problem.

Despite my strong criticisms, I AM a friend of India's people and environment.  To be fair, SUCH a large country that is developing, faces many challenges and the Himalaya is a vast area.   It is not just in the Himalaya that inadequate information exists to assess the rarity (or not) of plants or that plant/nature conservation is in its infancy.  In worn-torn countries/regions, it has to be said that plants cannot be high on the list of priorities.  We in Britain are in an enviable position in so many ways.  Our wild plants are better known that ANYWHERE in the world.  We have more botanists both amateur and professional (with some of the amateurs being of professional standard) per square km than anywhere on earth and we do not have the Himalaya to survey (with all due respect to our own mountains, it in not the same).  It is IMPOSSIBLE to study Himalaya flora to the same level but A LOT MORE could and should be done - for this to happen, collaboration with FOREIGNERS must be encouraged, not DISCOURAGED and the likes of Chris Chadwell embraced.  To focus instead on even more rules and regulations and PERMITS/PERMISSIONS, is COUNTER-PRODUTIVE and will DAMAGE the cause of nature conservation!!!!

Things do need to change.  THE PLANTS WHICH REALLY ARE 'RARE AND ENDANGERED' HAVE BEEN ABANDONED and others will increasingly be harmed UNLESS these issues are raised. IT is much more than the plants.  The concerns I raise ultimately impact upon the environment of everyone who lives in the parts of the Himalaya which are affected.  My only wish is to HELP, not harm.

I HOPE that anyone who CARES, like I do, and can help encourage steps to be taken "behind-the-scenes" to improve the situation.  I would bear no grudge and JUMP at the chance to help more and share my knowledge and expertise more widely.  Do not take too long though, as a combination of failing health and age may, sooner rather than later, prevent me from helping as much as I could have..   Perhaps the media might like to take up the cause and back my CAMPAIGN TO 'SAVE THE WORLD'S RARE AND ENDANGERED PLANTS'?  Would be rather nice to get some support.....

It is important to stress that I am not the first to raise concerns about the flora of the Western Himalaya.  It was an INDIAN, Prem Nath KOHLI, who felt that with increasing population, urbanisation, industrialisation and fast disappearing forests, HUNDREDS of species would become RARE and ENDANGERED.  This was happening DECADES before I was born.  I am told he used (rightly) to wonder why foreigners have to come to India on flying visits to write about "our plants", "our culture" and "our customs" when we have a better knowledge of them!  But his enthusiasm was soon dampened when he was DENIED reference books and collection equipment (not by the British but by senior Indian Officers) on the petty excuse that "they were not meant for Rangers'...

This made him write articles, take photographs and gather material for his own private herbarium (the best in Kashmir at that time - sadly lost, along with his photos during the fighting for Kashmir at Partition of India in 1947).  He was fully aware that he could not write floras without reference books!  He went on to establish P.Kohli & Co., becoming a nurseryman and seedsman (I also become the later) and the best horticulturist Kashmir ever produced.  Did P.N.Kohli think highly of me?  YES and as can be seen on this web-site, I hold him in high regard.  He was, like me, MUCH MORE OF A RESEARCH SCHOLAR than a businessman.  IF I was primarily a businessman, I have made an awfully poor job of it!

What a pity that present-day "powers-that-be" in India do not recognise that I am merely following in the footsteps of Kohli and that I SHOULD BE SHOWN respect.  Why not accept that I am UNIQUELY in a position to offer.  IF it had not been for Kohli and his daughter Urvashi, I could not have accumulated the knowledge I have....

THIS LEADS TO THE TOPIC OF "PUTTING SOMETHING BACK" see: https://sites.google.com/a/shpa.org.uk/main/putting-something-back

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