Protecting the unprotected in the Bhagirathi basin

Rupsy Khurana

Protecting India’s rich biodiversity has usually taken the form of designating protected areas like national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Several of these are contiguous with larger landscapes that lack such protection status and that form continuous habitat ranges for many animals. In a recent study, a team of Indian researchers have highlighted the need for more focused conservation strategies in the Bhagirathi basin in Uttarakhand.

Bhagirathi Featured
Uttarkashi Landscape, Bhagirathi basin (Photo: Ranjana Pal, WII)

Delineating protected areas is essential to the conservation of species and landscapes. In a country as populous as India, wildlife and humans often have to scramble for space and resources. Sometimes, wild animals occupy habitats that either exist outside of a protected area or are embedded in the human settlements. It is important to recognize such non-protected areas and implement effective conservation strategies.

A recent study conducted by a team of researchers led by Sathyakumar Sambandam, senior scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun highlights one such landscape — the Bhagirathi basin in Uttarakhand — as an important stronghold of biodiversity.

The Himalayas were carved out millions of years ago by the abrasive energy of flowing rivers and glaciers, aided by the slow accumulation of soil and rocks. The Bhagirathi basin in the Western Himalayas is formed by the Bhagirathi river, a major tributary of the river Ganga. This region provided the researchers with a natural set-up to assess wildlife diversity and its interaction with human activities.

The basin encompasses diverse habitats and climates ranging from cold and dry with sparse vegetation in the Trans-Himalayas to dense Sal forests in the lower Himalayas. The Gangotri National park is the only protected area in the basin and it largely protects habitats in the high altitudes. In contrast, forests in the lower altitudes are set within patches of human habitations dotted with agricultural fields.

During the 3‑year-long study, researchers placed camera traps at 209 locations spread evenly throughout the Bhagirathi basin. They recorded 39 species of large and medium-sized mammals, including endangered species such as the Bengal tiger, Himalayan brown bear, dhole, and musk deer. The photo captures also revealed the presence of snow leopards, common leopards, Asiatic black bears and Sambar, which are listed as threatened” by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Common Leopard in the basin capture in the camera trap
Common Leopard in the basin captured in a camera trap (Photo: WII-DST-NMSHE)

Interestingly, researchers recorded the presence of Argali, Tibetan sand foxes, woolly hares, Eurasian lynxes and woolly flying squirrels, which had never been sighted in Uttarakhand prior to this survey. This underscores the significance of wildlife habitats and the need for intensive surveys in the Bhagirathi basin.

The people residing in the basin have traditionally been dependent on the local forests for their household needs. But the burgeoning population, increasing tourism, and pilgrimage activities have further strained the resources of this mountainous region.

Sathyakumar’s study indicates high rates of human movement in all the habitats during summer, coupled with considerable overlap in human and animal activity. Gangotri National Park witnessed higher activities of feral dogs and livestock during summer as compared to winter. Since feral dogs can transmit diseases and hunt wild prey, their increasing population is another challenge to wildlife management. Images from camera traps placed in subalpine habitats have revealed the presence of hunting activities in the basin.

Habitat alterations due to development projects can also have grave repercussions on the wildlife in the basin. The recently declared Char Dham Railway Project and the ongoing All-Weather Char Dham Road Project may lead to undesirable changes in some of the pristine habitats in this landscape. According to Ranjana Pal, the first author of the study, while developmental activities are essential to economic growth, an integrated approach acknowledging the importance of wildlife and habitats is imperative for ecosystem health.

Snow Leopard in the basin
Snow Leopard captured in a camera trap (Photo: WII-DST-NMSHE)

The study concludes that the Bhagirathi Basin is home to a significant amount of biodiversity and needs immediate attention. Since such landscapes lack protection, they are highly fragmented and the wildlife residing there may witness multi-faceted consequences due to intense human activities. Species with large home ranges require movement between different habitats to forage for food and find mates. Corridors through which such movement can take place are also crucial to avoid inbreeding inside the protected areas and hence, maintain genetically healthy populations. High intensity of human activities outside and at the edges of protected areas can lead to loss of connectivity between habitats leading to functional isolation of species inside protected areas. This can, in turn, imperil conservation strategies.

Apart from losing critical ecological corridors to developmental activities, large mammals, especially carnivores, are threatened due to human-wildlife conflict. In human-dominated landscapes, the risk of human-wildlife conflict is disproportionately high and threatens the continued survival of species.

Protected areas cover only a small proportion of India’s natural landscapes. Several areas outside protected areas also support populations of wild mammals and help in maintaining connectivity among protected areas,” says Prachi Thatte, coordinator for connectivity conservation, World Wildlife Fund-India, who was not associated with the study.

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