12 Greatest risks to rare Himalayan flora? No. 1: Being dug-up by Indian botanists!

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 of the challenges, 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, despite shedding 'crocodile tears' ...... Strange old world..... Instead, our media is more interested in sensationalist, inadequately researched, tabloid-level stories.....

Having both the skill, experience and expertise to understand what I am looking at in terms of individual plant species and vegetation (in fact my knowledge in this respect is second-to-none in the whole world) 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to see for myself - one cannot become an expert on Himalayan flora sat in an office or copying information from out-of-date publications) and having travelled more widely along the Himalaya than anyone with associated botanical knowledge, over a period of over 30 years, I consider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 our present-day world is too pre-occupied with celebrities and names or trust politicians and governments who often have little or no actual expertise.........

Number 1: The GREATEST risk to 'Rare & Endangered' species in the Himalaya is being DUG UP in futile attempts at ex-situ 'CONSERVATION' by Indian botanists!!

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; hands-on gardening is viewed as inferior 'manual' labour...  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 government-funded 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.

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.....

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'......

Number 2: The second highest risk to 'Rare & Endangered' species in the Himalaya is being DUG UP for phytochemical studies by Indian botanists from Indian institutions!!

Details to follow.

Number 3: Illegal collection and smuggling of plants for use in AYUVEDIC (Indian Medicine) by INDIANS

ERIGERON gathered for medicinal use in NW Himalaya © Chris Chadwell

MECONOPSIS gathered for medicinal use in NW Himalaya © Chris Chadwell

LEPISORUS (an epiphytic fern) gathered for medicinal use in NW Himalaya © Chris Chadwell


Number 4: habitat destruction through road and house-building

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). © Chris Chadwell

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

Number 5: 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 © Chris Chadwell

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 © Chris Chadwell

Number 6: Landslides/soil erosion (made worse by road-building and illegal collection of firewood)

Travelling from Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh © Chris Chadwell

Number 7: Indian tourists at lower levels dropping litter and other waste (impacting upon lower altitude plants only)

Details to follow.

Number 8:  Trampling by Indian tourists at lower levels (and increasingly higher levels due to road and sky-lift construction such as the 'gondola' at Gulmarg, Kashmir, providing access to riding ponies whose hooves do greater damage)

Number 9:  Litter discarded by trekking groups at higher levels (once only foreign trekkers but now a mixture of Indian and foreign)

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!
© Chris Chadwell

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

Number 9: conversion of forests into agricultural land (contributing to no. 6 above).

Details to follow.

Number 10: mining/stone quarrying (contributing to no. 6 above).

Details to follow.

Number 11: pollution from factories and mining

Details to follow.

Number 13: litter and other waste from villages and towns being illegally dumped over the edge of roads in the 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!

Number 12: spread of alien plant species (mostly impacting upon lower elevation plants).

Details to follow.



Kashmir 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.  

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 (a decade ago) in his Chelsea track-suit, 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!

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 © Chris Chadwell