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, as I shall explain below. However, it is one thing to alert people to problems, what really matters is what can be done about them? Well, I do have solutions to quite a number, if only I was listened to....   Sadly, it appears neither botanists, institutions, governmental organisations nor governments in the Himalaya are interested in GENUINELY conserving the flora of the Himalaya - nor are International Conservation organisations ...... Strange old world..... Instead, our media is more interested in sensationalist, inadequately researched, tabloid-level stories.....

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 or writing about them...) and having travelled more widely along the Himalaya than anyone with associated botanical knowledge, over a period of over 30 years, I consider my evidence is worth listening to.  Despite my expertise in the study, cultivation and conservation of Himalayan flora being second-to-none (excuse making such an immodest and decidedly un-English proclamation) our present-day world is too pre-occupied with celebrities and names or trust politicians and governments who often have little or no real expertise.


The 'Snow Columbine' (AQUILEGIA  NIVALIS) - dug up en masse by local botanists for a failed 'CONSERVATION' project! (photo: B.O.Coventry) - this species is not endemic (meaning only found there) to Kashmir, as has been falsely claimed in numerous articles; there are records for it in a number of different districts of Pakistan and it grows in Himachal Pradesh! There is nothing to suggest it is 'endangered' let alone 'critically so' - to CLAIM so is misleading, indeed downright false! It inhabits rocks & screes, habitats which are not currently under and threat in Kashmir or bordering states.  Extensive surveys of the flora of Kashmir along with the whole of the Western Himalaya are required BEFORE one can tell that any species is genuinely rare.  Why is the strictly limited time, funding & resources being devoted to species which are not uncommon or even abundant?  This makes no sense, in fact should be viewed as fundamentally wrong. What about the plants which genuinely are 'rare and endangered'?  They appear to have been abandoned to their fate.....

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

The PROPER way to ATTEMPT to grow RARE plants in botanical gardens in the Himalaya is, in every case possible, by SEED but local botanists (and indeed most Western botanists) know little or nothing about how to do this.  Instead, presumably, as few local botanists can recognise plants when in seed, they instead, DIG UP, the SUPPOSEDLY 'Rare and Endangered' species, transporting them down thousands of feet, at the height of the summer, to be planted out under HOT and DRY conditions in 'botanic gardens'.  Any gardener in the UK knows that TRANSPLANTING plants under such conditions makes no sense. Few, if any Indian botanists have training in horticulture and are NOT gardeners.  It is hardly surprising that ALMOST all of the plants DUG UP, from higher elevations in the Himalaya by them, rapidly EXPIRE.....   Clever that.  If you were to visit these botanic gardens, just a short time after they undertaken projects for ex-situ conservation of 'Rare & Endangered' species, they would have found it difficult to show you any of these plants being still alive... This is NOT they way to go about 'Ex-Situ' Plant Conservation.

FORTUNATELY, it turns out that most of the SUPPOSEDLY 'RARE and ENDANGERED' species they have been digging up are neither RARE nor ENDANGERED!   Nobody actual knows which species are GENUINELY rare, let alone endangered in the Western Himalaya. The whole situation is unsatisfactory to say the least. 

Is Chris Chadwell willing and able to advise on better, more eco-friendly ways of GENUINE EX-SITU CONSERVATION OF WESTERN HIMALAYAN FLORA - yes!    But the starting point MUST be to discover which species really are 'Rare & Endangered'......

A typical town in the foothills of the Western Himalaya - causing problems with poorly regulated construction of houses, which damage the local environment and its flora.   A century ago, 'The West Himalayan Lily' (Lilium polyphyllum) was common in the woods surrounding Shimla, the summer capital of the British raj, yet today one would be hard pressed to locate a single specimen - it has been plucked, trampled and its habitat destroyed, so that it is genuinely 'Critically Endangered', if not extinct in the immediate vicinity and at best uncommon, if not rare in the region but the truth is nobody actually knows as few botanists have surveyed suitable locations.  The nearest population I know is above Manali but that colony is very much reduced due to encroachment of house construction and conversion of suitable hill-side habitat into apple orchards.  Its decline has noting to do with foreigners and no amount of passing and adopting of 'rules & regulations' applying to foreigners will address the real issues which impact on the populations of plant species in the Western Himalaya (whether or not they are attractive to look at and thus possess ornamental merit, which means specialist gardeners in the West would be willing to attempt to grow them - please note that many are a challenge to cultivate for even skilled growers of unusual plants).

Lilium polyphyllum photographed by B.O.Coventry - used to be common in Shimla woods during the days of the British


So what are the other serious risks to Himalayan flora?  Let us consider the problems in the Kulu Valley, Himachal Pradesh;  similar situations 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 strangely, 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'?  Well the area is not over-grazed, as the shepherd's risk being considered militants, so the delicate alpine flowers, we so enjoy can flourish (though SOME grazing is still required, otherwise rank grasses plus more competitive 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 body 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.  


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?   Removal of forests and increasing road and house construction contribute to serious problems but it seems the approach is to completely disregard the genuine damage being done to flora (and the environment as a whole) and highlight 'scape-goats' instead.  A familiar story, all over the world.   It is sad when the real issues are not covered.


I first visited Himachal Pradesh (my earlier expeditions to the Himalaya had been to the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh) working as a tour leader and plant expert (identifying the flowers we saw during the trip) 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 well above the Rohtang.  With increased numbers of Indian tourists, many wild (native) plants have been trampled out of existence on the top of the main pass (including riding ponies) - the cause is not the modest numbers of foreign tourists. 

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.  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 collected by Koelz & Chand 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 to Manali?  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.  And of course, nowadays one could digitise images of the specimens to share with botanists around India and the world.

A colony of GENTIANA TUBIFLORA - BEFORE it was largely 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 (once, in the 19th century, a major route to Kashmir and Ladakh.  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

Comments to follow.


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 CITES, see https://sites.google.com/a/shpa.org.uk/main/cites)  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.  For further information see: https://sites.google.com/a/shpa.org.uk/main/kohli-memorial-gold-medals

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